About the RPIF - A brief history
The first studies of extraterrestrial geology were of the Moon. In the UK, a Lunar Group funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) was set up in the Astronomy Department at UCL in 1966.
The Astronomy Department was based at the University of London Observatory at Mill Hill in North London. However, there was no room for a new group in the observatory itself and UCL bought a house in nearby Daws Lane to accommodate the group. This was known as the Observatory Annexe.
At that time, spacecraft observations of the Moon had just started, providing for the first time material that could be used by geologists to interpret the surface of that body. The great debate waged by geologists and astronomers was about the origin of the craters. Were they formed by volcanism or impact cratering?
The founders of the group were Gilbert Fielder, a committed supporter of the volcanic origin of craters on the Moon, and John Guest, a volcanologist who was convinced by the new data that the lunar craters were of impact origin. The results from Apollo Missions left little doubt that lunar craters were of impact origin and confirmed that the dark maria were sheets of basaltic lava.
Gilbert Fielder left UCL in 1971 to set up a new group at the University of Lancaster.
During the late 1970s, NASA set up a chain of archives across the United States of all planetary material obtained from spacecraft. A total of 10 such centres were established and were known as RPIFs. In 1980 UCL became the first non-US RPIF. Since then centres have been set up in France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Finland and Japan.
The aims of the centres are:
- to support local scientists with data
- to help students and scientists from adjacent areas
- to provide information to schools, other educational authorities and the media about planetary science
In 1999, the Physics and Astronomy Department closed the Observatory Annexe, so the RPIF and the Planetary Geology Group moved to the main UCL site in central London, and also changed departments to Geological Sciences (now Earth Sciences) - where we are now.
In 2007, the RPIF underwent a major refurbishment, and is now housed in the CPS room, which boasts new hardware for accessing, and viewing planetary data, as well as a dedicated outreach area. We also have a new 7m long Mars wall (featuring Spirit's McMurdo Panorama), and a large, full-resolution Magellan image of part of the surface of Venus. We also recently received a Magic Planet display from Vivifeye, which is housed in the CPS room, and available for external use to CPS members.