mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

In Memoriam: Tobias Owen (1936-2017)

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Toby Owen in his office

by Alan Tokunaga

Tobias (Toby) C. Owen, passed away on March 4, 2017, in Sacramento, California, where he had been living after retiring from the IfA in 2012. Toby's career as a planetary scientist started with the beginning of the exploration of the solar system with spacecraft and was he was actively involved in the Juno mission at the end.

Toby grew up in Denver, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. He developed an interest in astronomy at an early age and went on to the University of Chicago to earn his BS and MS degrees in Physics. From there he enrolled in the newly formed Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona to become one of the first students of Gerard Kuiper, the founder of the LPL, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1965 on spectroscopic studies of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

With a degree in hand, Toby joined the faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook where he not only pursued both ground-based studies of the planets but also became engaged with spacecraft missions starting with the Viking mission to Mars in 1971. With this mission started his long quest to seek clues to the formation of the terrestrial and jovian planets through the analysis of in situ isotopic abundances. His participation in major missions as an investigator included Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Rosetta, Curiosity, and Juno.

Along with his scientific endeavors, Toby and Carl Sagan initiated an effort in 1968 to form a specialized society in planetary studies and this ultimately led to the formation of the AAS Division of Planetary Sciences through the efforts of many like-minded senior scientists in the field. He was also one of the key scientists who worked with European colleagues to ensure the joint funding of Cassini by NASA and ESA. Cassini, with the Titan probe Huygens, is considered one of the most successful and productive planetary missions ever carried out.

Toby joined the IfA in 1990 where he continued both his ground-based and spacecraft mission work. He established strong ties with researchers at Paris Observatory through his involvement with the Cassini mission and his active ground-based observing programs. With Jean-Pierre Maillard and others, he investigated the deuterium abundance in the solar system and the possible detection of methane on Mars using the Fourier-Transform spectrograph at the CFHT.

There are many accolades for Toby. Here are a few:

"He will be remembered as a man of the world, unfailingly generous and modest, and a great scientist. He inspired all of his many colleagues with his enthusiasm for all aspects of planetary science, including the big questions of the origin of the Solar System and of life in the Universe. Toby received a number of honors in the US and in Europe, and in 2009, he was awarded the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize of the DPS."
- Dale Cruikshank, a fellow graduate student with Toby under Gerard Kuiper

"Toby's work on isotopes, and in particular D/H in the solar system was the catalyst that got people thinking about comets as the source of Earth's oceans, and in some sense it was his work that stimulated a fundamental part of the work that led to us getting the NASA Astrobiology institute here. ... So while he wasn't actively working with us in these areas, it was his work that laid the foundation for some of the key interdisciplinary science here at UH today. In his other mission work he was also working hard on understanding what other isotopic signatures could tell us about tracing the formation of the solar system."
- Karen Meech, faculty member at IfA.

"Scientifically, Toby was especially interested in the origins of planetary atmospheres. He used isotopic measurements by his friends and colleagues to determine how and from where the volatiles of the terrestrial planets were obtained. ... Toby;s papers describe the escape of gases from Mars, evidence for an early dense Martian atmosphere, the strange compositional make-up of Titan, and the nature of ice on Pluto, among many other things... Over time, I realized that Toby didn't fit into the simple categories occupied by most astronomers and planetary scientists because he was a complete original. Toby was an expert at big-picture thinking and an unparalleled synthesizer of new knowledge. I last saw Toby in 2009. He was in his office, pen in hand."
- Dave Jewitt, UCLA, former faculty member at the IfA.

Toby is survived by his spouse Natasha and sons from a previous marriage, David and Jonathan.

Former IfA faculty member David Jewitt has also written an obituary for Toby Owen, available here.

There is also a very nice NASA tribute page describing Toby's many accomplishments.


Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakalā and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii.