Author spotlight: Tom Farr

Tom Farr joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1975 and has helped develop the first geologic applications of imaging radar using aircraft, satellites, and the Space Shuttle. He has taught a class on planetary exploration at Santa Barbara City College for more than 10 years. He currently resides in Montecito.

Plate Tectonics: A Revolution in Geology
By Tom Farr   |   July 15, 2021

Almost everybody who’s looked at a map of the Atlantic Ocean has noticed that South America and Africa fit together. Alfred Wegener noticed too and proposed in 1915 that they indeed were together long ago. He was laughed out of the room. The reason was that he couldn’t say how and why they had split […]

How We Study Earth and Other Planets from Space
By Tom Farr   |   June 3, 2021

Late the other night my friend Joan called from the Cachuma Lake campground and asked excitedly what the string of lights was that had just tracked across their sky. Was it a UFO? Luckily, I had heard about Elon Musk’s latest launch of about 60 small satellites as part of Starlink, a satellite-based internet. I […]

How Planetary Exploration is Helping Understand Earth a Bit Better
By Tom Farr   |   May 6, 2021

“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”— TS Eliot After surveying our solar system, as well as thousands of others beyond our own, we can now look back at our home planet with a new perspective, that […]

Beyond Our Solar System
By Tom Farr   |   April 15, 2021

Twenty years ago, there would have been nothing to write about under this topic. There were no known planets circling stars beyond our own. But in 2009 a revolution happened with NASA’s launch of the Kepler telescope. Within a few years, Kepler had found so many planets that scientists realized that there were more planets […]

Our Solar System: The Leftovers
By Tom Farr   |   March 25, 2021

We all learned in school that there are eight planets (well, nine if you’re as old as I am), but our solar system is messier than that. There are millions of leftover rocks called asteroids; bits of ice and rock that come and go called comets; and objects out there beyond Neptune called, in dry […]

Our Solar System: Uranus and Neptune
By Tom Farr   |   March 11, 2021

Uranus and Neptune, the twin ice giants of the solar system, are so far out there that they’ve only been visited once by Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989. They’re so far away that light from the Sun takes two-and-a half hours to reach Uranus and over four hours to touch Neptune. For those reasons, […]

Our Solar System: Saturn
By Tom Farr   |   February 18, 2021

30 June 2004, 7:30 pm. The VIP room at JPL is quiet as we all watch a thin line trace horizontally across the big screen at the front of the room. It’s the radio signal from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it speeds toward Saturn Orbit Insertion (SOI) after seven years in transit. JPL invites some […]

Our Solar System: Jupiter
By Tom Farr   |   February 11, 2021

March 9, 1979 and Voyager 1 had just left the Jupiter system en route to its rendezvous with Saturn. Linda Morabito, the cognizant engineer for the navigation team, noticed something odd about one of the images of Jupiter’s moon Io: There was a ghost image protruding from the side of the moon. She was using […]

Our Solar System: Mars
By Tom Farr   |   January 28, 2021

On July 20, 1976, seven years to the day after humans first walked on the moon, a bunch of us new employees of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory trooped over to Caltech’s Beckman auditorium (the one that looks like a circus tent) to see the first landing of a spacecraft on another planet. Viking 1 was […]

Our Solar System: Venus
By Tom Farr   |   January 7, 2021

I was already in the Science Team room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the second cycle of radar images of the surface of Venus were beamed down in May of 1991. I waited impatiently for the five-inch print roll to start spooling out. The first cycle had gone well and most of Venus’s surface […]

Our Solar System: Mercury
By Tom Farr   |   December 31, 2020

As a kid I was always picking up rocks and wondering at the diversity of them all. Where did they come from? And family camping trips gave me a sampling of the varied landscapes of California and the West. When I found out I could combine my love of the outdoors with the study of […]

The Electromagnetic Spectrum
By Tom Farr   |   October 13, 2020

Even as a kid growing up in Southern California, I was always wondering: Why do things look the way they do? Why is the sky blue, but grass is green? I got into rock collecting and wondered at the variety of colors and textures – how did they form? As I studied geology in college […]