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K. J. Meech - Biography

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Karen Meech is an associate astronomer at the UH Institute for Astronomy. Her scientific interests include almost any field in cometary science: evolution and aging processes in comets, observations of distant comets, plasma tails, Kreutz sungrazing comets, and Kuiper belt comets. Other scientific interests include planetary formation and the search for extra-solar planetary systems and archaeoastronomy.

She received her Bachelor of Arts in Physics at Rice University in 1981, and her PhD in planetary astronomy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987. She joined the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii in 1987, immediately after receiving her PhD. In 1988 she received the Annie Jump Cannon Award in Astronomy which is awarded annually to a woman for distinguished contributions to astronomy. In 1994 she was the recipient of the Harold C. Urey Prize in astronomy, presented by the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society for her outstanding achievements in planetary research. Asteroid 4367 is named in honor of her contributions to solar system astronomy.

Karen's primary work concentrates on the activity levels of comets as they approach and recede from the sun. Using the world's largest telescopes on Mauna Kea, at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory in Chile, and at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, she is observing specific comets at frequent intervals to determine at what distance from the sun they begin to start showing activity, and when they stop showing activity as they move away from the sun. These observations provide clues about cometary composition and is one of the keys being used to unlock the past history of the early Solar System. These studies led to discovery that Chiron, previously thought to be an asteroid, actually develops the characteristics of a comet at a distance of 11 astronomical units from the sun. She has been using the Hubble Space Telescope to study Chiron, and has discovered that it has a unique tenuous gravitationally bound atmosphere. In addition, she was the co-discoverer of the tremendous outburst of comet Halley in 1991. Meech is a co-investigator on the recently selected discovery mission, Deep Impact which will send an impactor to comet P/Tempel 1 in 2005.

In addition to these studies, she has also been involved in other smaller studies. Among these are: the search for Kreutz sungrazing comets, a family of comets that approach very near to the sun and generally evaporate in the process; a study of the features that are observed in the plasma tail of comet Halley; the determination of the rotation periods of short-period comets; observations of split comet nuclei, and stellar occultations by the rings of Uranus and Neptune. Other research activities that Karen has been involved in include a research assistantship at the Maria Mitchell Observatory, an assistantship with the American Association of Variable Star Observers and an archaeoastronomical expedition to Cusco, Peru - all during her college career.

Her teaching experience at UH is extensive and ranges from basic undergraduate astronomy courses to upper level space exploration to graduate level planetary physics, as well as supervising graduate students on thesis and research projects. She has also been involved in seminars and adult education classes. She also participated in an international educational series by giving a teleconference lecture in Spanish to a class in Honduras.

To fill the rest of her time, she serves on over a dozen astronomical committees, and she is a consultant to the Bishop Museum's Planetarium Explorer's Project to develop educational planetarium shows. She organized the 1995 meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society which was held in Kona Hawaii during October 1995, was the local organizing chair for the 1999 Bioastronomy Conference in Hawai'i. She is currently a co-editor of the proceedings.

Karen's activities outside of her research include scuba diving, (in which she has acted as a safety diver for a University of Hawaii class), judging for the Honolulu State Science Fair, a Rice Alumnae interviewer, and the exploration of the ancient astronomy of the Hawaiian peoples. She was recently invited to become a member of the Board of Directors of Kilo Lokahi, a non-profit corporation dedicated to promoting education and research in archaeoastronomy in Hawaii.


Visits since 10/99. Last Updated on December 15, 2001
Karen. Meech, Institute for Astronomy, UH
meech@ifa.hawaii.edu