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Nancy Chanover selected as NMSU's Tombaugh Scholar in astronomy

Clyde Tombaugh would be pleased. For the next two years, the astronomy research scholarship he helped establish will be held by a fellow planetary scientist, Nancy Chanover.

Planetary astronomer Nancy Chanover, seen here with a portrait of the late Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, is New Mexico State University's newest Tombaugh Scholar. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Chanover recently was selected as New Mexico State University's third Tombaugh Scholar -- an honor named for and made possible by the man who discovered the planet Pluto.

"Clyde wanted to give people the opportunity to do what he did as a young man -- to make their own discoveries," said NMSU astronomer Bernie McNamara, who accompanied Tombaugh and his wife Patsy on a speaking tour of the United States and Canada to raise money for an endowment to support up-and-coming astronomers.

At the moment, Chanover's discoveries are related to the atmosphere of Saturn and its large moon Titan. Her research will be important to the success of NASA's Cassini mission, a four- year, close-up study of the Saturnian system that will begin in earnest in 2004, when a spacecraft that was launched in 1997 approaches the ringed planet.

"On Saturn itself, we're trying to understand some of the storm systems that have been seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, to find out how long they last, how they move, and what wave length it's best to observe them in," she said of her research. "For Titan, there are a lot of brightness variations on the surface that are interesting -- they could be due to oceans, lakes, mountains, or some other kind of terrain."

Chanover uses data from a range of sources, including the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope; the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, operated by NMSU on a ridge high in the Sacramento Mountains; and the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where a historic 100-inch telescope has been retrofitted with adaptive optics technology to make it competitive with newer and bigger telescopes.

Her research has been funded by the Space Telescope Institute, the NASA Planetary Astronomy Program and the Mount Wilson Institute. And for the next two years, her NMSU salary will be paid by the Tombaugh Scholar endowment, allowing her to concentrate full time on research.

"There is no teaching responsibility," McNamara said. "The primary responsibility is to engage in astronomical research. The Tombaugh Scholar is expected to interact with graduate students and faculty, and to give a public talk, but the primary goal is to allow them to develop their research expertise."

Tombaugh, just 24 when he discovered Pluto, was in his eighties when he embarked on a tour of about 40 cities to talk about his discovery. Along the way he sparked an interest in astronomy among audiences of all ages and raised small contributions toward the scholarship endowment.

"The money was raised $20 at a time, to match a state appropriation for the endowment," McNamara said. "This was truly a grassroots effort, and people are still contributing in honor of Clyde." The scholarship endowment now has assets of about $900,000, he said.

Tombaugh, who joined the NMSU faculty in the mid-1950s, died in January 1997 at the age of 90. "When I first came here as a grad student, Clyde was still coming in fairly regularly to his office and to colloquia," Chanover said. "I was always struck by how broad his knowledge was."

Chanover, who earned a bachelor's degree in physics at Wellesley College, finished her Ph.D. in astronomy at NMSU in 1997. She did postdoctoral research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and returned to take a college faculty position in the NMSU astronomy department.

She is the first NMSU faculty member to be selected for the Tombaugh Scholarship, which is advertised nationally. "We typically get about 100 applications, from all over," said McNamara. "The process is quite competitive."

The selection committee was impressed with Chanover's "academic excellence, her strong recommendations from very well- known scientists and her publication record," he said.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto.
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PHOTO: Chanover_Nancy.jpg
CUTLINE: Planetary astronomer Nancy Chanover, seen here with a portrait of the late Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, is New Mexico State University's newest Tombaugh Scholar. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Karl Hill
July 31, 2000