by Sheyna E. Gifford for Astrobiology Magazine
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Mar 13, 2017
When you're in the business of unlocking the secrets of the universe, making plans 40 years in advance doesn't seem like a stretch. That's why hundreds of visionaries from planetary science, astrophysics, engineering, and other disciplines came together last week at NASA headquarters to break conceptual ground on humanity's future in space.
Now is an especially important time to be having this kind of conversation. As one speaker pointed out, in the span of a human lifetime, we've gone from never having left the Earth to sending probes out to almost every major type of celestial body in the Solar System.
The last 50 years of exploration redrew the lines that described our existence. From that vantage point, the Planetary Visions 2050 conference looked forward and asked: where do we go from here, and how, and most importantly, why? What's our grand vision for where we want to be as a species in another half a century?
"Something very simple that we all get," said NASA's head of planetary science Jim Green as the conference kicked off. "If you don't spent time thinking about your future - dreaming about your future - you don't have a future."
As the discussion progressed, many visions of our best possible future in space emerged with a few taking center stage. Major themes included our return to the Moon; our advances on Mars; explorations of asteroids and the Outer Planets; a clearer definition of life; science's role in galvanizing new technology; and the role of commercial space ventures in rapidly changing what's possible. Along the way, voices from all fields called for expanded diversity, inclusion, public outreach, and a unifying scientific theme.
We Expect to Find Life Beyond Earth
Rather than struggle towards a definition of life that might even the most well-designed robotic missions might miss, the community at the Planetary Visions conference discussed changing tactics: looking for signs of life processes rather than the life itself.
Whether a life-form is based on carbon or silicon, uses oxygen for energy transport like humans or ingests iron like the first life on Earth may have, all life that we know of seems to have a few things in common. It uses energy. It transforms materials. It makes copies of itself and it curates information about how to make those copies. Searching for material actively undergoing changes that only a living organism can produce might allow us to see beyond what life looks like and witness what life behaves like, wherever it is in the Universe.
Sample return missions
Obstacles to this vision remain, yet may be overcome sooner rather than later. For example, the lack of a launch-date for a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission reflects an ongoing challenge in the astrobiology community: selecting the best place and the best way to sample.
As one participant at the conference noted, it's by no means a straightforward question. For example, some of the best-presumed spots to look for life on Mars include recurring slope lineae (RSL), which seem to be formed by the passage of water. However, even heavy and capable rovers have a hard time traversing sloped areas, and landing on one is inadvisable at best. Attendees at the conference were optimistic that lower-cost, easier-to-deploy options like small explorers, microrovers, and hoppers might increase opportunities for sampling locations while overcoming the challenges of uncertain terrain in spots we want to look for life: which, ideally, is everywhere.
Eyes to Match Our Vision
Designed for a new era where, as Shawn Domagal-Goldman from NASA Goddard put it, "I don't count stars in the sky anymore, I count planets," the James Webb will have the power to watch the TRAPPIST-1 planets for signs of life.
Picking up oxygen and nitrogen around habitable-zone planets 40 light-years away would be a significant find for JWST - but, as discussed at Planetary Visions, finding oxygen in the atmosphere of an exoplanet doesn't necessarily mean we've found life there. Domagal-Goldman emphasized that a far better indicator of life would be changes in levels of oxygen or methane - molecules that, "require replenishment in a way that only life can sustain."
While the world awaits JWST's deployment in 2018, planetary scientists and astrophysicists are already looking forward to the next big thing: LUVOIR.
As the next-next-generation telescope, the Large UV/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) would be so powerful that it directly image rocky planets around other stars. Right now all we can see of these planets is their shadows as they cross in front of their home stars. LUVOIR would show us plumes erupting from distant, icy moons with outstanding clarity and allow us to safely map asteroids, even relatively small ones, in our solar system to a relatively high degree of resolution. From small bodies to planetary defense and everything in-between, LUVOIR has researchers in geochemistry, planetary science, and astrophysics very excited.
The question is timely. Though the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets give us some hope that terrestrial bodies in other solar systems are habitable, if those bodies are as short on magnetic field protection as Mars is, our hope of finding extant life there will need some adjustment. After all, what would life on Earth be like without our enormous and powerful magnetic field? It might be a lot like life is, or was, on Mars.
How to best protect people living in deep space from the same radiation that whisks away Mars' atmosphere every day is an ongoing source of consternation. To counter incoming solar radiation, some researchers have suggested creating active magnetic fields around spaceships. Expanding on that idea, Jim Greene and Ruth Bamford combined models of enormous magnetic fields with known Mars climate data to ask the question: how much shielding would Mars need to become habitable?
The answer is: a lot. Changing the environment of a planet not only takes a lot of time, it takes an enormous amount of power. The models indicated that even if we could find some way to power a magnetic field large enough to cast a protective barrier over Mars, other effects would take place as the planet heated up: effects including far more massive dust storms than it has today.
Once the shield was in place, in theory, over the course of hundreds of millions of years the polar caps would melt and release carbon dioxide into the environment. The end result would be a warmer planet with a higher atmospheric pressure. "This is not terraforming as we may think about it," said Green to the assembly. "We let nature do it based on the physics that we know today."
In other words, a very long time from now, the same technology we hope to apply to keep ourselves alive while aboard ships in deep space could potentially be applied to entire planets. In the meanwhile, we must keep doing the research we need to solve the radiation problem. "This tells us that we don't have all the physics and the models that we need," Green concluded in his presentation.
Speaking of planning, what if we wanted to study an exoplanet up close? Not just its atmosphere as LUVOIR could, but really close - close enough to see hills and valleys, lakes, and any artificial structures that might be there?
The proposed solar gravity lens (SGL) would, in theory, provide such a view. Taking advantage of how mass bends space, it would turn our own star into the lens of a cosmic-sized telescope. In order for this to work, the detector part of the SGL would need to be deployed on a spacecraft far from the Sun, about 550 AU away (as a comparison, Pluto is an average 40 AU away from the Sun). On the plus side, the resulting images could have a resolution down to 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles: the equivalent of a map major highways and large parks - on another planet.
Funding the Future
Planetary Visions conference attendees suggested there is a lot that the private sector can do to help. In addition to hundreds of millions of dollars made by lunar and asteroid prospecting, we might reasonably expect to see massive 3-D printed orbiting communications arrays coming online in the next 20 to 30 years. This engineering-driven need to expand telecommunications could help propel space from a profitable $300 billion- a-year venture to an enormously profitable $1 trillion enterprise by 2050.
Moon or Mars
"The human and robotic programs really should be connected," said Bruce Jakosky, the head of the current MAVEN spacecraft mission studying Mars' atmosphere. "They ARE connected."
Wherever we head next, with humans or robotic missions or both, most of those present agreed that improved propulsion and power systems as well as far better communications arrays will be required before humankind can successfully take its place as a permanent, spacefaring species.
In Situ Resource Utilization and Planetary Protection
Fortunately, nearby planets Mars and Mercury are somewhat frozen in time. Without oceans, atmospheres, or active tectonics to alter their landscapes, these bodies remain relics: near-pristine examples of planetary geology from the days of our early solar system. Asteroids and comets are also early solar system remnants.
Planetary protection groups like NASA's strive to maintain the integrity of these primordial bodies so we can understand our own origins and, hopefully, the origin of life itself. At the same time, planetary visionaries acknowledge that surviving for any significant duration in space requires us to make use of the things we find there. Such In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) will allow us not only to survive by providing sources of water, power, fuel, and building materials, but it could allow commercial space exploration to thrive through lucrative practices such as asteroid-mining.
Presumably, a balance between planetary protection and ISRU will one day be struck. The focus at Planetary Visions was on the science required by both sides to further the exploration that will eventually benefit all; from geochemistry to electromagnetism, from low-gravity physics to completely new kinds of chemistry, and, of course water identification. We know how important water is to life. The hope is that we can find life and locate enough spare water for humans to survive.
Exploring the Ocean Worlds
Forty Years Forward and Beyond
Planetary visionaries like those who attended the conference last week look further than the visible horizon. They try to predict the kind of technologies we need to build the kind of societies we will want in the kind of future we all hope to live in. Which goes first - the science or the technology - is up for debate. Where we go first, to the Moon or Mars or the asteroid belt, may be less important than the fact that we are going, and intend to keep going. Whether or not we build planetary shields or telescopes the size of the solar system, by continuing to explore space, we are investing in ourselves and in our children. By inviting everyone - scientists and engineers, business people, artists and students of every extraction, age, and education possible - to come along, we improve not only our odds of funding and launching missions to space, but of designing ventures that reflect our values and goals as a society.
That's the hope, the plan, the dream. That's our grand vision.
Washington DC (SPX) Mar 07, 2017
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