NASA expert on meteor impacts is keynote speaker for Edmondson Lecture

  • Oct. 7, 2013


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- One of the world’s leading experts on asteroids and comets and the risk they pose to Earth will present the inaugural F.K. Edmondson Lecture on Monday, Oct. 14, at Indiana University Bloomington. David Morrison, a senior scientist at the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, will use the Chelyabinsk, Russia, meteor impact earlier this year as a touch point for his lecture topic, “What would happen if a large asteroid collided with the Earth?”

In 1991, Morrison chaired the NASA study of impact hazards that recommended a survey be carried out to search for potentially threatening asteroids and comets, and in 1995, he received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for that work. He has testified four times before Congress on the hazards and hazard mitigation of comet and asteroid impacts.

John Salzer, chair of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy, said it is fitting that a world leader in the study of small bodies in the solar system, and particularly asteroids and comets, presents the inaugural lecture recognizing Edmondson, an emeritus professor of astronomy who died in 2008.

“One of Frank Edmondson’s earliest accomplishments was the launch in 1949 of the Indiana Asteroid Program and that effort to locate and calculate the orbits of asteroids that were lost when observations were interrupted during World War II,” Salzer said. “Edmondson’s contributions to our knowledge of asteroids ties in closely with Morrison’s work on asteroids and comets.”

Over the next 28 years, the work led by Edmondson -- the second faculty member hired into IU’s Department of Astronomy and its department chair for 35 years -- identified 119 new asteroids through the study of more than 3,500 image plates and 12,000 asteroid images.

Salzer added that the general public’s interest in asteroids and impact threats remains high after a 65-foot-diameter asteroid traveling at more than 41,000 mph entered earth’s atmosphere and then exploded as a meteor 14 miles over Russia with the strength of more than two dozen Hiroshima-sized atom bombs.

Considered one of the founders of the field of astrobiology, Morrison is a popular public writer and lecturer who has made numerous contributions to teaching astronomy and space science, including authorship of leading college undergraduate texts in astronomy and planetary science. Like Edmondson, Morrison received a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University and was one of Carl Sagan’s first graduate students.

In addition to his role as senior scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Morrison is also spending half time at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., where he is director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe. The author of more than 180 technical papers and a dozen books, he has been a science investigator on NASA's Mariner, Voyager, Galileo and Kepler space missions.

His research accomplishments include demonstration of the uniform high surface temperature of Venus; the discovery that Neptune has a large internal heat source while its “twin” planet Uranus does not; determination of the methane ice surface composition of Pluto; the first ground-based measurements of the heat flow from Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io; the discovery of the fundamental division of the asteroids into dark (primitive) and light (stony) classes; and the first quantitative estimate of the cosmic impact hazard.

Morrison is recipient of the Dryden Medal for research of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society for public communication, and the Klumpke-Roberts award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for contributions to science education. He has received two NASA Outstanding Leadership medals and he was awarded the Presidential Meritorious Rank.

Morrison’s public lecture will take place at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14, in Room 100, Rawles Hall, 831 E. Third St.

About Frank K. Edmondson and the Edmondson Lecture

The IU Department of Astronomy and friends of Edmondson established an endowed fund to begin the F.K. Edmondson Lectureship after Edmondson’s death in 2008 at the age of 96. Gifts to that fund can be made by contacting the IU Foundation.

Edmondson received a master’s degree from IU in 1934 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1937, and he was chair of IU’s Department of Astronomy from 1944 to 1978. In 1957 he helped IU become one of seven founding members of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, an organization he would later represent as a member of the board of directors and as vice president and president.

He served as treasurer of the American Astronomical Society from 1954 to 1975, an organization that in 2001 recognized his attendance at their meetings for over a 70 year span. In a history of the American Astronomical Society’s first 100 years, Edmondson recalled Albert Einstein playing the violin during the AAS annual banquet held in 1935 at Princeton University. In 1997 he received the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from IU.

For more information, contact Steve Chaplin, IU Communications, at 812-856-1896 or

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David Morrison

David Morrison

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Eyewitness photo of Chelyabinsk meteor trail

Eyewitness photo of Chelyabinsk meteor trail | Photo by Nikita Plekhanov

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