Emily Lakdawalla gushes with enthusiasm about the cool things to see and learn in our solar system, and for her that would be reason enough to explore those places.
“I’m just curious,” she told the Rose City Astronomers at their most recent meeting in Portland. “I like to see the new places, I like to see the planets. I think it’s awfully fun, but that’s not a good reason to make somebody else pay for it.”
Lakdawalla, senior editor and planetary evangelist for the Planetary Society, said the public policy reasons for exploration are to answer the questions of how we got here and whether we’re alone in the universe. We need to find those answers off-planet.
“Earth is a wonderful planet to live on!” she said. “It’s my favorite planet; it’s temperate, it’s a very comfortable place to live. It’s also a terrible place to try to answer these questions from a planetary science point of view.”
That, she says, is because Earth is dynamic. Forces like weather and volcanism and even life and evolution change things and mess up the ancient evidence about how things were before. We need to go to space to find territory in a more undisturbed state.
After the first wave of planetary exploration, with Viking, Mariner, and the like, enthusiasm and political will and funding for planetary exploration waned. Lakdawalla explained that the Planetary Society was founded in 1980 to be an advocate for finding the answers. We’re now enjoying a second wave of exploration.
“Since the end of the second millennium, we’ve had this amazing expansion of robotic space explorers all over the solar system,” Lakdawalla said. She talked about many of them, with a particular emphasis on Mars. This is squarely within her bailiwick, as she is the author of the book The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job (Springer Praxis Books, 2018).
She explained how a series of Mars missions followed the water. Mars Global Surveyor made a map. Mars Odyssey detected evidence of hydrogen by analyzing neutron movement, and hydrogen could mean water. Phoenix went to look for water and found ice. Mars Express found places where there’s clay, evidence of water, in many places. Curiosity went to one of those places.
“Curiosity has found environments on Mars that are unequivocally habitable,” Lakdawalla said. “Curiosity is not capable of looking for fossil evidence of microbial life on Mars. It doesn’t have the instruments.”
While Curiosity continues its mission, Lakdawalla said we’ve pretty well exhausted this particular line of research.
“We have found that, yes, Mars could have originated life in the past, but we can’t tell you if there was life there or not,” she said. That question will be up to the next line of rovers, such as the ESA’s ExoMars and NASA’s Mars 2020.
Lakdawalla spent some time on the outer solar system, particularly the life possibilities on the jovian moons Ganymede and Europa and Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus. She noted that on Titan the temperature is such that methane could exist on the surface in liquid, gas, or solid forms, much as water can exist on Earth. The Huygens probe found round rocks on Titan, a significant discovery for a geologist.
“We have a river, except it’s a bizarro river,” Lakdawalla said. “Those rocks are made of water ice, and the river they were tumbled in was a methane river. It’s so familiar and so completely bizarre.” She said it’s hard to say if life could exist in that strange environment. Another reason for further exploration!
Lakdawalla said she’d love to see a mission soon to either Uranus or Neptune.
“They don’t get enough respect,” she said. “I think they’re awesome worlds.” But remembering her statement that coolness alone isn’t enough of a reason for the trip, she noted that the ice worlds are at an intermediate size between the gas giants and the terrestrial planets.
“Most of the exoplanets that we have discovered in the last 30 years have been of this size,” Lakdawalla noted. “We’ve never studied up-close the ones in our own solar system except for one Voyager 2 fly-by. We don’t understand these worlds very well at all, so how are we going to understand the rest of the universe and all of these other planets orbiting all of these other stars?”
Lakdawalla concluded that it’s a great time to be in the planetary exploration business.
“We’re doing it for a reason; we’re trying to understand how we got here, whether we’re the only life in the solar system,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful field of study.”
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