The Universe is Awesome, Again

Now here’s some fodder for science fiction right out of today’s space headlines…

Kepler Discovers Planetary System Orbiting Two Suns

Sweet building blocks of life found around young star

Picture this: a multiple-planet, multiple-star system, still in its early stages of formation – gravity pulling proto-planets and gas streamers all over the system – the radiation from the igniting stars bathing the inner disk in energy – resonances between planetoids, dust lumps, and the stars feeding back into the dynamics – and life evolves.

The universe is just awesome.

They’ve Still Got It

I pulled my car into my lot today, and as I walked over to the mailbox, I passed three young kids from the apartment complex. One of them asks me, “do you work for NASA?!

(There’s a NASA meatball sticker on my car bumper.)

“I used to,” I told them.

“Wow! What did you do when you worked for NASA?”

“You know the new Moon rover?” I reply. “It has six legs with wheels on the ends, and a bubble on top for the astronauts to sit in.”


“I helped work on the suspension system for those wheels – so the rover can climb over big rocks while it drives.” My hands were crabbing their way over imaginary Moon boulders.

“That is so cool!

People in this country generally fall into two categories: those who love NASA, and those who think NASA needs to be even more ambitious and capable than it already is. In media, the phrase “NASA scientist” lends a researcher more weight than the simple moniker “scientist.” NASA means achievement, technical wizardry, and the impossible made possible. The entire organization is about the best and brightest coming together to make small steps into giant leaps.

NASA doesn’t fly people on its own spacecraft any more, and one of the greatest NASA heroes just departed the Earth for the last time. But the mere mention of the Space Agency still enthralls these kids in my parking lot. Let’s make sure that legacy continues.


Stoking our Curiosity for Other Worlds

In the wee hours of last Monday (Eastern US time), a jubilant Mission Control erupted at the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity.”

Curiosity has demonstrated some amazing technological feats. Now, that portion of its mission is nearly over, and the rover will go over to science operations. The hair-raising, fist-pumping, frenzy-whipping part is done – but it’s been great practice!

While the MSL entry, descent, and landing system may seem harebrained and silly, it is in fact quite conservative and driven by fundamental engineering decisions. The engineering triumph of this system demonstrates to me how spacecraft engineers can set extraordinarily technically ambitious goals and achieve them in dramatic fashion. The JPL engineers who devised it are the types of people who design a device to last for three months and find it still happily ticking away six or eight or more years later. This thing was going to work. The toughest part was probably selling the concept to the NASA brass!

So, now we’ve got reinforcing knowledge that we can aim for the stars and hit them (well, planets, anyway). Let’s set out with some crazy-ambitious goals! And let’s set out for some places that let us answer fundamental questions.

This is my core disagreement with the NASA Decadal Survey, which prioritizes a Martian sample return mission above all else: such a sample return will advance the sub-sub-field of Martian geochemistry an incremental amount. This is not an ambitious enough goal to meet our demonstrated engineering capability! I don’t want to discover evidence that some place may have been habitable sometime in the distant past – I want to go someplace where we discover life because it’s staring right back at us.

Not so long ago, I proposed a mission concept for a subsurface probe to Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. Europa is intriguing because we already know that it has liquid water, and we already know that it has a strong energy source from Jovian tides – both of which are key ingredients for life as we know it! Even better, there are certain surface features on Europa, which – if our best models for how those features form are correct – are conduits from outer space to the ocean beneath. I suggested that we might develop a space vehicle that conducts a high-wire act above one of these exposed ice fractures, dropping probes down into the ocean below.

Soft landing on a Europan double ridge

Continue reading Stoking our Curiosity for Other Worlds