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GPS scientist Michael Watkins named next JPL director

May 3, 2016  - By

Michael M. Watkins has been appointed director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and vice president at Caltech, the Institute announced. Watkins is the Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair in Aerospace Engineering and director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin.

Watkins has written for GPS World about the GRACE project, which uses GPS and a microwave ranging system to map Earth’s gravitational fields.

Watkins will formally assume his position on July 1. He succeeds Charles Elachi, who will retire on June 30 and move to the Caltech faculty.

Watkins is an internationally recognized scientist and engineer. Before assuming his current position at the University of Texas in 2015, he worked at JPL for 22 years, where he held leadership roles on some of NASA’s highest-profile missions.

Watkins served as mission manager and mission system manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover; led review or development teams for several missions including the Cassini, Mars Odyssey, and Deep Impact probes; and was the project scientist leading science development for the GRAIL moon-mapping satellites, the GRACE Earth science mission, and the GRACE Follow-on mission, scheduled for launch in 2017. He last served at JPL as manager of the Science Division, and chief scientist for the Engineering and Science Directorate.

“He has been one of the early pioneers of using GPS for very high-precision geodetic applications including precise orbit determination, precise point positioning, mapping of mass variability using high precision gravity field measurements, to name only a few of his major accomplishments in geodesy,” said JPL senior researcher Attila Komjathy, who was one of the first to investigate the use of GPS signals to study the ionosphere.

GPS and microwave ranging. GRACE (the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) maps the Earth’s gravity fields by making accurate measurements of the distance between the two satellites, using GPS and a microwave ranging system. It provides scientists from all over the world with an efficient and cost-effective way to map the Earth’s gravity fields with unprecedented accuracy. The results from this mission have revealed detailed information about the distribution and flow of mass within the Earth and it’s surroundings.

The gravity variations that GRACE studies include: changes due to surface and deep currents in the ocean; runoff and ground water storage on land masses; exchanges between ice sheets or glaciers and the oceans; and variations of mass within the Earth. Another goal of the mission is to create a better profile of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Michael Watkins (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Michael Watkins (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Michael’s record of successful mission leadership and impressive management skills quickly distinguished him as a leading candidate for this position,” said Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “As JPL director, Michael will build upon the laboratory’s outstanding achievements in planetary exploration and Earth science, strengthening the connections between Caltech’s campuses and partnering with NASA to deliver highly complex and nuanced missions.”

“I’ve known Mike Watkins for more than 20 years now,” Elachi said. “Mike has played important and varying roles in a number of important JPL areas. His intimate knowledge of the lab and staff, combined with his highly diversified set of skills and knowledge base in science and engineering, will serve JPL very well in the years to come.”

A committee composed of Caltech trustees, faculty, senior administrative leaders, and a member of the JPL executive council conducted an extensive search and recommended Watkins to Caltech’s president.

Watkins holds a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. He has published broadly in both engineering and science, contributed more than 100 conference presentations, and has served on the boards of numerous international scientific and engineering societies.

“JPL has such a talented and deeply committed staff,” said Watkins. “It is a privilege to have this opportunity to lead the laboratory to even greater discoveries. I look forward to working with my colleagues on campus and across NASA to forge new directions in space exploration and Earth science.”

GPS World article:

“Instrument of GRACE: GPS augments gravity measurements,” GPS World, 14(2), 16-28, 2003 (C. Dunn et al.).

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