The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) is a research center for planetary science located in Tucson, Arizona. It is also a graduate school, constituting the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. LPL is one of the world's largest programs dedicated exclusively to planetary science in a university setting. The Lunar and Planetary Lab collection is held at the University of Arizona Special Collections Library.
LPL was founded in 1960 by astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Kuiper had long been a pioneer in observing the Solar System, especially the Moon, at a time when this was unfashionable among astronomers. Among his contributions are the discovery of Miranda and Nereid, the detection of carbon dioxide on Mars and of methane on Titan, and the prediction of the Kuiper Belt.
Kuiper came to Tucson looking for greater independence than he had enjoyed at the University of Chicago, the chance to build a community dedicated to solar system studies, and also to be closer to southern Arizona's many potential sites for world-class observatories, such as Kitt Peak National Observatory (founded in 1958). LPL was established under the auspices of the University of Arizona, with Kuiper serving as director until his death.
LPL's endeavors are truly interdisciplinary. The accumulated knowledge and techniques of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric science, and engineering are all brought to bear upon the single goal of studying planetary systems. Many students come to LPL having studied only one or two of these subjects in detail, so a broad-based curriculum is essential.
In 1973, the university established a graduate Department of Planetary Sciences, operating continuously with LPL. This provided an administrative framework for LPL to admit graduate students and take a greater role in teaching. LPL's chief officer is simultaneously "head" of the department and "director" of the laboratory. The current Head and Director is Timothy D. Swindle.
The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has been involved in almost every interplanetary spacecraft sent. These are some of the major ones that it was or is involved:
The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory is involved with Spacewatch, the program to identify near-Earth asteroids, with the Planetary Atmosphere Project to measure the content of the atmospheres of various planets, with occultations, the art of measuring the spectrography of a star when it passes behind a planet, to see what a planet's atmosphere is composed of, with studies of the planet Mercury, with the Catalina Sky Survey, related to the Spacewatch program, as well as interdisciplinary sciences such as Theoretical Astrophysics and Space Physics, helping to find the answers to such questions as: What is Dark matter?
The Art of Planetary science is an annual art exhibition run by the LPL to celebrate the beauty and elegance of science. The art exhibit was founded by graduate students in 2013 as a public outreach program and as a means to bridge the gap between scientific and artistic communities. In 2017, The Art of Planetary Science displayed over 200 pieces of art from approximately 100 artists and scientists, drawing more than 700 guests. Says Geoff Notkin, "It is wonderful to see a real variety and innovative art both inspired by and for inspiring people interested in space, science, and exploration."