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Gerhard Neukum (1944–2014)

Published onDec 01, 2014
Gerhard Neukum (1944–2014)

Reprinted with permission from Dawn Education & Communications.

Photo credit: ESA

We are remembering Gerhard Neukum today: a mentor, a friend, and a superlative colleague.

Professor Gerhard Neukum was a planetary scientist with a particular fascination for craters and the story they tell about the age and composition of a solar system body—and the solar system itself. A co-investigator on the Dawn science team, he advised with characteristic perception and tenacity.

Neukum’s career as a distinguished planetary scientist began in the 1970s, when he conducted research for NASA’s Apollo program as a physics student at the University of Heidelberg. Eventually he became the director of the German Aerospace Center Institute of Planetary Research before moving to the Free University of Berlin. Throughout his long and successful career he made major contributions to international space missions that visited the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the main asteroid belt. Neukum will always be remembered for his uncompromising determination to explore the solar system. Without his charismatic leadership, planetary science would not be where it is today.

Neukum had very high standards. He loved scientific discussions and admitted it freely when he was wrong. Amazingly this did not happen very often! Gerhard was a person you could call late at night to discuss a science issue—especially when it came to crater counting results, a particular passion.

He was a great scientist who taught us about the will power to accomplish goals. Those who worked with him always appreciated his direct and energetic way of approaching and solving problems. Some did not always agree with Neukum’s outspoken way of arguing for new space missions, or the scientific details of crater counting throughout the solar system. However, everyone respected him for his intellectual capabilities and his love of exchanging fair arguments in scientific discourse.

Neukum was also the inventor of the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). With nine sensors that scan an object from a different perspective and combine the images, it pushed the boundaries of solar system imaging. A version of his camera was aboard the unsuccessful Russian Mars ’96 probe, which did not make it beyond Earth orbit. Gerhard remained undeterred. “On the plane back to Moscow,” Gerhard recalled, “I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be the end.’” In 2003, his camera was on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express. Since then, scientists and citizens alike have enjoyed these sharp and stunning images.

Besides being a great mentor, scientist and a person who touched the lives and careers of a large number of people, he was a friend to so many of us. We all recall numerous conversations about his kids, grandchildren and his garden projects. His family was certainly dear to his heart and we all appreciated that he let us be part of this part of his life. He will be missed dearly.

The Dawn team sends its sincere condolences to the family of Professor Neukum, and shares some special memories, below.

"Gerhard was an inspiring and energetic leader not only for Mars Express but also for missions like Galileo, Dawn, Cassini and all the attempts we made to go back to the moon. Gerhard was a great planetary scientist on many space projects and a long term friend for many of us." — Ralf Jaumann, German Aerospace Center

"Gerhard has been an unparalleled leader in planetary science and his accomplishments and personality will be long remembered with great fondness. The Dawn team is particularly indebted to his tireless efforts and enthusiasm. It has been a unique honor to know and work with him." — Carle M. Pieters, Brown University

"I met Gerhard during the Galileo lunar flybys as a student of Ron Greeley, and I am appreciative of all of the support that Gerhard gave to me as a graduate student (learning how to do crater counting for age dating), a postdoc and faculty researcher, and finally as Co-PI on HRSC, and as a participating scientist on Dawn. Gerhard’s tenacious search for understanding the ages of planetary objects has been an ongoing inspiration. All of us at Arizona State University who knew him will miss him." — David A. Williams, Arizona State University

"I first met Gerhard as Herr Professor Doktor Neukum, when I was a graduate student at Brown. Gerhard gave me my first instruction in crater age dating statistics as part of my thesis work on Ganymede, and he continued to be a great mentor and colleague throughout my career. I count myself fortunate to finally be able to work closely with him again, however briefly, on the Dawn at Vesta team.

"He was a great inspiration and mentor and I will miss him a lot! I don’t know how many students and scientists he touched with his enthusiasm and determination to explore the solar system. He certainly took a lot of heat for saying things that were correct but that nobody besides him dared to say in public. He was a man who would not bend! I always appreciated his direct way of approaching problems." — Harald Hiesinger, University of Munster

"A few months ago I met Gerhard Neukum at “his” Institut für Planetenphysik in Berlin. He was Gerhard Neukum as we all know him: active, determined and not talking about compromises. Gerhard Neukum has been one of the outstanding planetary scientists in Germany during the last 30 years." — H. Uwe Keller, Braunschweig University of Technology

"Everybody knows that he has been a great scientist, but I will forever remember him for the help and friendship he gave me." — Maria Teresa Capria, Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics

For more information about Gerhard Neukum:

1. European Space Agency | A Man with a Plan: An Interview with Gerhard Neukum: 10.12.2003

2. Planetary Society | Planetary Radio podcast: 4.25.2005

3. Time Magazine | Aerospace Inspiration: Gerhard Neukum: 4.20.2007

Special thanks to Dr. Harold Hiesinger and Dr. Ralf Jaumman for their contributions to this post.

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