Dr. Faith Vilas is an American planetary scientist and Director of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory in Arizona.
Vilas earned her BA in Astronomy at Wellesley College and her MS in Astronomy at MIT. She completed her Doctoral degree at the University of Arizona.
Vilas was a scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) from 1985 through 2005 where she worked on quantifying orbital debris from spacecraft in low Earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit, or geotransfer orbit. Her observations helped to prove the existence of Neptune's rings five years before they were confirmed by a 1989 Voyager mission. She designed the coronagraph used to produce the first-ever image of a circumstellar disk around another star (Beta Pictoris) in 1984. Dr. Vilas has been a pioneer in the identification of hydrated minerals through use of an absorption band near 700 nm.
While at JSC, she served as the Program Scientist for the Discovery, Dawn, and NEAR data analysis programs at NASA Headquarters from 2001-2002, ensuring the integrity of the Discovery program selection process during a time of national duress following the chaos of the 9/11 attack. She returned to JSC as the Group Chief for Planetary Astronomy within the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Office from 2002-2005. Vilas then became the director of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory from 2005 to 2010, where she managed telescope and instrumentation operations. She joined the staff of the Planetary Science Institute in 2011. At PSI, she was Participating Scientist on NASA's MESSENGER mission to Mercury and the Atsa Suborbital Observatory Project Scientist. She is a Participating Scientist on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter LAMP team, and on the Joint Science Team for the Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu. She currently serves as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation.
Vilas has been active in the leadership of the planetary science community, serving as Secretary-Treasurer of the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society from 1992-1995, after which she was elected Vice Chair (1995-1996) and succeeded to Chair (1996-1997). As Chair of the DPS, Vilas played a key role in establishing the Carl Sagan Medal, which was the first major statement in support of the importance of communicating our science with the public. Vilas served as the first chair of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (2007-2009), chartered by NASA to identify scientific priorities and opportunities for the exploration of asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, small satellites, and Trans-Neptunian Objects.
This project studies the physical and compositional properties of the so-called minor bodies of the Solar System, that includes asteroids, icy objects, and comets. Of special interest are the trans-neptunian objects (TNOs), including those considered the most distant objects detected so far (Extreme-TNOs or ETNOs); the comets and the comet-asteroid