SSEC planetary scientist wins prestigious university award

Dr. Larry Sromovsky

SSEC planetary scientist Dr. Lawrence Sromovsky won the 2007 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research by an Independent Investigator.

15 May 2007

From designing an instrument to measure the atmosphere on Venus to observing the seasons on Neptune, SSEC planetary scientist Lawrence Sromovsky has made significant contributions to our understanding of our solar system. In a ceremony on May 15, UW-Madison honored Sromovsky and his dedicated pursuit of knowledge with the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research by an Independent Investigator.

“Larry’s remarkable achievements follow from his strong drive for truth and understanding and his strict objectivity,” said SSEC Director Hank Revercomb in his nomination letter. “He is versatile, combining unusual theoretical understanding, physical instincts, and experimental talents.” Revercomb has worked closely with Sromovsky throughout his career.

As a high school freshman in Michigan, Sromovsky founded a rocket club. Using plumbing materials from his grandfather, Sromovsky and his friends concocted a recipe for rocket fuel and devised vehicles to launch into the sky. “I had no idea at the time that I would some day be watching a rocket take off for Jupiter with my instrument on it,” Sromovsky says.

After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, Sromovsky came to UW-Madison for his graduate work in Physics. He received his Ph.D. in 1970. During his time with the Physics Department, Sromovsky heard a talk by SSEC co-founder Verner Suomi. Suomi piqued Sromovsky’s interest and Sromovsky soon joined SSEC as an assistant scientist.

Although Sromovsky wanted to be a theoretical physicist, Suomi’s job offer sent him on a different trajectory and he ended up applying this physics background to studies of the planets in our solar system. Sromovsky’s first planetary project was to develop an instrument to explore the composition and unique characteristics of the atmosphere of Venus.

Sromovsky served as a co-investigator for SSEC’s role in NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission. Launched in August 1978, SSEC’s Pioneer Venus Small Probe Net Flux Radiometers flew into space on three small units, each about the size of a basketball. The inhospitable conditions of the planet made the project challenging and Sromovsky remembers working with the team to overcome a multitude of obstacles to allow the instrument to remain intact in temperatures above 700 Kelvin but to gather data as well.

After the mission to Venus, Sromovsky became involved with a project to send a probe through Jupiter’s atmosphere. When Sromovsky replaced the original Principal Investigator, the instrument had many problems that needed to be remedied for a successful mission. “His leadership allowed us to deliver a redesigned and superior instrument,” wrote colleague Pat Fry in his nomination letter. Sromovsky recognizes Fry as a “key contributor” to many of the projects with which Sromovsky has been involved.

The Galileo probe provided a significant dataset that continues to help scientists understand Jupiter’s atmosphere. “The probe encounter was a period of high anxiety,” Sromovsky says. “After a six-year trip to Jupiter, the probe had to survive a horrendous, difficult entry, parachute deployment, and a decent to twenty bars, and then relay the signal to the orbiter and then back to Earth. The fact that it all worked was a remarkable achievement.” Sromovsky credits the success of the mission to the “magnificent work” of the Galileo team, including Fry who contributed to data analysis and SSEC’s Fred Best who led the engineering effort. 

Those who have worked with Sromovsky frequently cite his leadership, attention to detail and broad knowledge base as an assurance of a successful program, project or study. “Verner [Suomi] admitted that he became confident in ideas when they passed what he called ‘the Sromovsky sanity check,’” wrote Paul Menzel, a senior scientist at SSEC and professor with the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

In addition to his work on spacecraft instruments, Sromovsky has also explored the solar system using ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope. His enhanced images of Neptune and Uranus appear frequently in international media outlets and have illustrated a variety of books and other publications. Sromovsky uses his careful observations to glean information about the outer planets’ atmospheric compositions and cloud structures.

Learning about the atmospheres on other planets helps us understand more about our universe and about our own planet. “It gives you a view of different atmospheric dynamics that you don’t see on Earth,” Sromovsky says. “By understanding the constraints of composition, you learn how the atmosphere was formed.”

Continuing to unravel the pieces of planetary atmospheres, Sromovsky plans to pursue further studies of the cloud structures and atmospheres of other planets. He has a new grant to delve further into the clouds surrounding Jupiter. As shown by the probe that Sromovsky help propel into the Jovian atmosphere, the clouds on Jupiter do not seem to match up with expectations. “It’s puzzling to say the least,” Sromovsky says. “I intend to work on that puzzle.” Using observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft, Sromovsky hopes to reduce the uncertainties surrounding Jupiter’s atmosphere.              

During his many years with SSEC, Sromovsky has contributed to and led efforts to understand the atmospheres of Earth, Venus, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Titan (one of Saturn’s moons). He says that he is honored by the University’s recognition of his work, but attributes much of his success to the support of his colleagues. “The excellence award is really something not earned in isolation,” Sromovsky says. “Without the support provided by SSEC, it would not have been possible.”

--Jen O’Leary

Official University announcement on 10 May 2007

Last Updated:
July 2, 2007
SSEC, 1225 W. Dayton Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA
For questions or problems about this page, please contact
SSEC Webmaster