By: Benu Atri
I was recently invited to attend the 1st Blue Marble Science Symposium held in the exquisite Hilton Hotel in Downtown, Chicago on Sunday, 14th of June, 2015.
Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra and Dr. Sanjoy Som, co-founders of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS) who are also members of the organizing committee of Astrobiology India, organized the symposium. BMSIS is a non-profit research institute with an interdisciplinary approach to studying the relationship between Earth system science, space exploration, and the future of humanity. The attendees of the Blue Marble Science Symposium were a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and early career investigators from United States as well as international institutions and many of these were BMSIS scientists.
The timing of the Blue Marble Symposium was impeccably chosen to be a day before the start of the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2015, also held at the same venue. AbSciCon is a series of conferences organized by the astrobiology community bringing together astrobiologists from all over the world to report on research findings on the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe and to plan future endeavors. The theme for AbSciCon 2015 was Habitability, Habitable Worlds, and Life.
After the initial introductions and welcome, the symposium took off with a roundtable conversation on what are some of the most feasible and attractive destinations in the inner solar system for humans to explore and what all goes into developing a successful strategy for sustained exploration of the inner-solar system.
The whole session was recorded live for the Blue Marble Space Science Conversations (BlueSciCon), a monthly podcast, available online.
Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra was the moderator. Here is a summary of the roundtable, including some of the most attractive places to visit, reasons why we should, and what we will gain from such expeditions.
JHM: Do asteroids make a good target? They are undeniably very rich in resources. But is there an economically viable way to pursue asteroid mining? Is it worth the effort and investment? Also, from the point of view of funding, what is it that we can learn from an asteroid that we cannot learn from a planetary mission?
We should definitely go for it. We can use landing rovers on asteroids as testing grounds for a lot of experimentation, establishing planetary protection policies and practices and also gaining insight into sending humans on to an asteroid, for missions as practice for longer duration missions to planets further out.
JHM: A very exciting new NASA mission is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a first-ever robotic mission to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a boulder from its surface, and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. Once it’s there, astronauts will explore it and return with samples in the 2020s. Do we have the ability? Is this a good idea?
A really good reason to go to an asteroid, besides studying geology, is the resources. The technology that will go behind making such missions a reality would definitely be one of a kind. And as has in the past, such new inventions have always come back to improve life on Earth. It will be a different mission than going on a planet in search of life – the goal here would be to mine resources from a place that does not have life based on or to define such resources. The sample return from a mission like this will be far greater than any other study done before. Asteroids are stray matter formed during the birth of our Solar System and the ARM mission will definitely lead to major discoveries about the Big Bang and perhaps origin of life on Earth.
A concern was raised on the possibility of misuse of this technology for weapon building. However, Dr. Fabia Battistuzzi, an early career investigator in the Biological Sciences department at the Oakland University, commented that while something like that is always possible, it should not stop us from building the technology. We are chasing something so big and new that by the time it is happening, hopefully the people at the frontier of space exploration can push mankind past global disagreements and we can work on a united international level.
The group also discussed the effects of asteroid mining on economic models.
JHM: Human beings have not returned to the Moon since the last lunar landing of 1976. Is a return to the Moon mission attractive? If yes, why haven’t we? Are the reasons political or scientific? Could we perhaps use the Moon to form a lunar base as a launch pad for missions to other places?
Tragically, the Moon is not an attractive destination anymore for funding. In the eyes of the public, it is conquered ground, something we’ve already done and now is the time to visit some other place. However, the technology has changed since the last time we were on the Moon, and a mission back to the Moon would definitely get a lot of new science done and we will learn a lot more. Graham Lau, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder held that no matter how many sophisticated rovers we send, when it comes to doing science, a human being can achieve a lot more. And we need specialists too. A great example is that of all the people who went to the Moon and got back lunar rock samples, only one of them was a geologist and knew what to really look for and therefore brought back samples that taught us a lot about rock formations, impacts, and surface of Moon.
The best thing about the Moon is that it is a short mission and the conditions can be made conducive for longer stay. We can use the Moon to work on existing off planet for longer and longer durations. Besides the science, we should go to the Moon for satisfying our sense of curiosity and exploration. By now, Moon missions should have become routine. The Moon can be treated as Antarctica. It could be thought of as testing grounds, out of our comfort zones. We should have a research base on the Moon and have research scientists go there, on rotations, something astrobiologist and origin of life researcher Bob Shapiro also envisioned. We should always be exploring.
In a grim but very imaginable scenario, the Moon can also be thought of as an insurance against the craziness of mankind here on Earth. We need to survive before we can go to any place off this planet. As Carl Sagan once said: “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”
On why a return to the Moon mission has not happened yet, politics certainly has played a huge role in United States. Especially, when it comes to the decision-making processes involving space exploration. The Bush administration pushed the return to the Moon mission and building a base as well but it did not pan out as well under the current presidency.
Venus and Mercury:
JHM: What do we think of the inner solar system planets? Do Venus and Mercury make good targets? Perhaps for robotic or sample return missions?
50 km above the surface of Venus is an atmosphere where we can live with 1 bar pressure and the conditions are very close to Earth. It can be imagined as a capsule city in the clouds. No doubt, we are going to need protective anti-corrosion gear against the sulfuric acid rain. Venus makes a great candidate to look for life and to study because it could serve as an example of the second genesis (of life).
Mercury on the other hand makes a great place from geological standpoint. There was water found on Mercury, as confirmed by the images taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft (short for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging). Mercury also makes for a very good target for study. We can learn a lot about where our rock dating methods stand from sample return missions like we did from the Moon.
Terrestrial analogs are an excellent beginning place. An analogous way of testing extreme atmospheres (e.g. that of Venus) would be to make a probe and drop it into a volcano and learn about the conditions and the severe environments.
On the interplay between private and public efforts, the thought was that private space exploration industry does have a lot promise and on some occasions might even take up on the more risky challenges. And while that will get the ball rolling, a small concern is that basic science could suffer. However, the hope is that eventually all space exploration programs will have a science and research wing in their model (e.g. Virgin Galactic has scientific expeditions included in their objectives).
So, what, ultimately, will humankind gain from this?
While we should continue to fight climate change and make Earth a better place, we must remember that space exploration is not just exploration. It is a whole process of development and innovation. There is so much return of investment with this new technology. It is expensive but in reality that is a small proportion of the world’s resources. Space fascinates humans in a tremendous way. Last month, NASA announced the 4 US astronauts that will be the first space crew on a commercial vehicle.
The possibility of finding life on other planets is something that has always captured the public enthusiasm. Space exploration increases interest in science. And don’t we all want to know – are we alone?
What do you think? Tell us what you think in the comments below – why should we go to space, why should we explore?