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Space Exploration and Climate Change:
An Introduction and Interdisciplinary Discussion

by Anna M. Quider, University of Cambridge [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Author Anna Quider  

Author Anna Quider at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Photo courtesy  Anna M. Quider


I arrived at the Marshall Scholar Reunion and Symposium at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) thankful for the sunny weather and excited for the two-day event.  For over fifty years, the United Kingdom (UK) has funded graduate study in any discipline at any UK institution for a number of American students through the Marshall Scholarship.  As a reunion, this event brought together many generations of Marshall Scholars who are working in a huge range of fields.  As a symposium, this event informed participants on two major issues involving the physics community: space exploration and climate change.  Because of the diverse backgrounds of the attendees, information sessions and wide-ranging discussions were had on both of these topics.

On the first day, we were introduced to space exploration through a presentation by Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  JPL is responsible for building and monitoring many of the robots that are currently dispatched throughout our solar system, including the famous twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and, more recently, the Phoenix Lander, on Mars. His presentation discussed both the challenges and excitement of exploring our solar system using robotic explorers.  Because his talk was for a general audience, he included numerous accessible analogies in his presentation.  When discussing the challenge of getting a rover to its intended destination, Dr. Elachi likened this to teeing up in Los Angeles and sinking a hole-in-one in St. Andrews, Scotland.  He pointed out that the temperature extremes on Mars go from a freezer to an oven every day.  To convey the scientific need for studying other planets and the wide-ranging questions that can be addressed, Dr. Elachi explained that Saturn is essentially a small version of a solar system that is being formed in front of our eyes, so studying Saturn can help us understand how solar systems form.  I am very involved with astronomy public outreach so it is always interesting and instructive to hear another professional’s public-level talk and astronomy analogies, particularly when the speaker is the head of a major astronomy organization.

The recent public debate about the future of NASA’s manned mission to Mars prompted the solicitation of Dr. Elachi’s opinion on the matter.  In a diplomatic response, he made it clear that he does not think that there is a scientific case for sending people to Mars.  Following up on this point, I spoke with Dr. Paul Dimotakis, the Chief Technologist for JPL, on the issue of human exploration of Mars.  He agreed with Dr. Elachi and said that we must first successfully return Martian soil samples to Earth before we can begin to address the challenges of sending humans on a round-trip flight to Mars.  I valued the opportunity to discuss this issue with two experts because it has captured the public imagination, making it a hot topic for discussion in my department and the broader community alike.

Continuing the theme of space exploration, we visited JPL on the second day.  Interestingly, JPL was almost called Rocket Propulsion Laboratory but that name was considered too “giggle-worthy” and not respectable enough for what was, at the time, a branch of the US Army.  The next major mission to Mars was discussed: a compact car-sized rover initially named the Mars Science Laboratory, now called Curiosity.  This rover will carry its own continuous power supply via a nuclear fuel source and an on-board suite of instruments for interacting with and analyzing Martian rocks and soil-- upgrades from the solar-powered, observation-oriented Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Segueing into the second phase of the symposium, we received an introduction to JPL’s monitoring of Earth.  I was surprised to learn that JPL is at the forefront of studying the many facets of Earth--oceans, clouds, atmosphere, gravitational field, topography-- which makes JPL a key player in the international debate on climate change. 

  Model of Mars rover


Anna poses with a full-scale model of the forthcoming compact car-sized Mars rover due to launch in Fall 2011.
Photo courtesy Anna M. Quider.

We returned to Caltech for a presentation and panel discussion on climate change.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Steven Koonin, Undersecretary for Science at the US Department of Energy, who presented a talk entitled “Energy and Other Sustainability Challenges”.  The main point of his sobering presentation is that the world is heading for an energy disaster, including accelerating climate change.  Because of the extreme complexity of the natural and political systems involved, Dr. Koonin argued that we need to “save the [global energy] system by orthodonture rather than tooth extraction,” meaning that a careful, precision approach to solving these problems is required.  The panel discussion that ensued was wide-ranging and informative.

A main theme arising from this symposium is the need for the populace and decision makers to be better informed of the scientific facts pertaining to the major issues facing modern society.  Ultimately, society must choose to adopt new technologies and ideas despite the perceived security of the status quo and inclinations to defer tackling complex, long-term problems.  As Dr. Dimotakis put it, “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones” so we shouldn’t defer adopting green energy until we’ve run out of fossil fuels.  It is time to end the energy “stone age” before we actually do run out of “stones”.  One thing that nearly everyone I met agreed upon was that more scientists are needed in the government, working to educate citizens and decision makers and pushing for policies based on sound scientific facts and foresight. 

Going into this two-day event I believed that physicists can play a vital role in shaping society’s legislative and cultural responses to today’s major challenges.  Attending this event strengthened my resolve to be one such physicist.  I believe that the conversations I have started with other Marshall Scholars, who come from so many different personal and professional backgrounds, are the first steps on my path to becoming a socially responsible physicist.  I am hopeful that these types of fruitful interdisciplinary conversations will continue throughout my career.

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