College of Science

Professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Research Focus

I am a planetary scientist who studies the composition and evolution of planets and their atmospheres. My research has encompassed many of the planets and moons in our solar system, planets that orbit distant stars, as well as rogue planets that exist between the stars. I have participated in a variety of NASA rocket, space shuttle, satellite that study the Earth, as well as deep space robotic missions to other planets. More recently, I am a Science Team Member, and Mission Co-Investigator on the NASA/New Horizons Spacecraft Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule.

Current Projects

■ The New Horizons spacecraft mission to the double planet system Pluto and Charon: the first reconnaissance of Pluto – a dwarf ice planet with a dynamic atmosphere and active geology

■ The New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule and study of its surface chemistry: an encounter with the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule, which is a primordial remnant from the birth of the solar system

■ Habitability of exoplanets – planets outside of our solar system: research on the factors that make planets habitable, or uninhabitable, for life as we understand life on Earth, as well as for life that might be much different from Earth life

■ Planetary atmospheric biomarkers of biological activity: research on the identification of observable characteristics that would indicate life on distant planets including Mars, Titan, and exoplanets

Select Publications

Trefil, J. & Summers, M. E. (2019). Imagined life: a speculative scientific journey among the exoplanets in search of intelligent aliens, ice creatures, and supergravity animals. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

■ Summers, M. E., et al. (2019). Chemical models of Pluto’s atmosphere. In Pluto and Charon (pp. 391-434). Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Summers, M. E., & Trefil, J. (2017). Exoplanets: diamond worlds, super earths, pulsar planets, and the new search for life beyond our solar system. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Cruikshank D. P., et al. (2019). Prebiotic chemistry of Pluto. Astrobiology, 19(7), 831-848.



Phone: 703-993-3971