Conferees share excitement of space exploration

It was a clear, blue, you-can-see-forever day on Earth when Richard Binzel, associate professor of planetary sciences and chief organizer of the week-long 29th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences, warmed up the crowd of about 500 scientists at opening session of the conference hosted by MIT starting July 28.

Well, maybe you couldn't see forever. But thanks to Pathfinder, you could see all the way to Mars, where Sojourner was doing its errands among rocks named after cartoon characters. Pathfinder's huge success made this gathering of planetary scientists a generally buoyant affair.

The crowd in Kresge Auditorium had an almost giddy mood much of the time. References to science fiction movies and novels peppered the soberest presentations throughout the five-day event that included six invited talks, two prize lectures, an invited discussion ("Planets or Pulsations? An Open Discussion of 51 Pegasi"), and 26 individual sessions on topics ranging from asteroids to Hale-Bopp to oceans on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

President Charles M. Vest welcomed the planetary scientists, noting that a new element has been added to their mission. "Consider your obligations as ambassadors and salespeople for planetary science," he said. Acknowledging the deaths of Dr. Carl Sagan, founder of the Division of Planetary Sciences, and Eugene Shoe-maker,a pioneer in understanding planetary impacts, he said, "Despite the human losses of the past year, it's a great time to be in planetary science."


Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, head of the Pathfinder mission, summarized the recent scientific findings from Mars. He discussed how Pathfinder, the first of the Surveyor series and a flagship project of the Discovery Program ("faster, cheaper, leaner, more fun"), used its stereoscopic camera, stereo range finding and other rover appliances to locate "rocks which seem spectrally interesting" and to navigate around those that are, well, just rocks. Pathfinder is also profiling Martian weather, measuring diurnal temperatures, wind velocity, water vapor, and opactity of dust, which makes Mars' atmosphere linty as the inside of a clothes dryer after a big load of towels.

Maria T. Zuber, professor of planetary sciences at MIT, is the deputy principal investigator of the laser altimeter that will go into orbit around Mars on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in September. A geophysicist whose research deals with the structure and evolution of the surfaces and interiors of planets, Professor Zuber spoke on a study that addresses how Mars's seasonal atmospheric cycle works, and how that affects our view of the nature of its past climate.

Professor Zuber is also a Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) science team group leader. Monday's second invited talk was about one NEAR flyby past Mathilde, "an asteroid with a very tortured past." Shortly before the conference began, the NEAR spacecraft returned more than 500 images of Mathilde, revealing a "dark, crater-battered little world" about 33 miles in diameter, shaped like a clumsily formed skull with shadows for eyes.

Thanks to a 25-minute flyby -- called "one of the most successful flybys of all time" by the NEAR mission director -- scientists could observe that Mathilde is primordial black rock throughout, and they hope further analysis will reveal the nature of the solar system's most ancient matter.

On July 28, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin challenged his audience to consider the words of young scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "They said, 'We made great progress but we see conservatism creeping in. We're afraid the old folks are taking over again!'"

Around NASA, "old-folkism," in Mr. Goldin's view, equals an emphasis on ground-testing instead of launching; intellectual adherence to the "bright, sharp lines between biology, physics and chemistry," and fear of failure.

But goodbye to all that, he vowed to his mostly gray-haired but occasionally pony-tailed colleagues. "We're going to start doing things broadband," he vowed.

According to Mr. Goldin, an Astrobiology Institute ("real people, virtual communication") will catapult NASA into the midst of an "age of revolution in biology." There will be sweeping changes in the way spacecraft are built, with an eye to the thinking spacecraft ("All download; no upload," he said.) There will be an expanded research vista, with a horizon of 10 to 15 years. There will be new means of propulsion, coordination of instrument development, international cooperation, and discussions among religious leaders as to whether our "ethical standards are ready to deal with the discovery of life out there."

Mr. Goldin, who has led NASA for five years, said he envisions small, cheaply produced spacecraft launched in the thousands. "I'd like to see the skies darkened with ships," he said.

"The blurring of boundaries between planetary sciences and life sciences has been underway for a long time at MIT," said Charles Counsel-man, an MIT professor of planetary sciences. "Every undergraduate here is required to take a biology subject. And involving life scientists is good news for MIT and future MIT grads."

For Wesley T. Huntress, associate administrator in the NASA Office of Space Science, the nation's space programs were "skating dangerously close to the dark side. Now we're on the bright side of the Force." Referring to Arthur C. Clarke, author of the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, he quipped of Galileo's search for a subsurface ocean on Europa, "We'll land there if Arthur C. gives us his permission." Europa is the place from which Mr. Clarke's hero embarks on his evolutionary tour of space and time.


Addressing a full house in Kresge on July 29, R.T. Pappalardo declared of Jupiter's cold moon, "It is tempting to think about an ocean model for Europa, with water below a layer of ice. Instead, think of an ice sandwich, with water, ductile ice and brittle ice in ascending order������������������ Understanding the geology of Europa is a function of understanding ridge formation. At right, you see the largest ball of string in the universe."

No one looked up.

"At left, you see Francis Johnson standing in front of the largest ball of string on Earth," he continued. And there it was: the classic joke slide, inserted to make sure everyone was awake, of a man in overalls standing in front of a seven-foot-high ball of string.

Following the scenes of Europa, Professor John Clarke's slides of the aurora borealis, taken from the space shuttle, were lush, dreamy, even spiritual. They formed a bright halo around Earth's North Pole, with the famed curtain of light wafting deep into space.

Throughout the week, one wall of the Johnson Athletics Center was nearly consumed by a Mars-scape, to be viewed through blue and red 3-D glasses. Opposite Mars were booths of American aerospace firms McDonnell-Douglas, Lockheed-Martin and Ball Aerospace. Lockheed-Martin displayed models of Stardust and boxy little Cassini, reminiscent of R2D2, the loyal droid in "Star Wars."

Joseph Palsulich of McDonnell-Douglas is a big space launch fan despite being a veteran of numerous liftoffs. "It's still exciting, no matter how many I see. It's that brilliant white light -- it's always a thrill to see it lift off and up."

Next to Mr. Palsulich's display of upright Delta rockets stood Paul Weissman, munching on a bagel with cream cheese. "I'm using one of their rockets," said the 23-year JPL veteran. "Want to see?"

Dr. Weissman's proposed mission, DS4/Champollion, is part of the high-tech-based (as opposed to science-based) New Millenium Program. DS4/Champollion is scheduled for launch in 2003 to arrive on Tempel 1 (a comet with "a nice five-and-a-half-year orbit around the Sun," he said) in 2005, depart in 2006 and to return to Earth, laden with samples, in 2010.

The poster depicting DS4/Champollion shows a dreidel-shaped capsule, wrapped in gold Mylar, lifting off from its handle, which sticks up from a landing pad. The pad is equipped to drill for samples one meter below the surface. Surrounding the pad and the rising capsule are imposing piles of cometary rubble resembling caviar.

"Sample return is the Holy Grail of all planetary science," Dr. Weissman said.

A live, televised press conference broadcast from NASA to Rm 3-133, showed Matthew Golombek of the Mars Pathfinder geology team and five other JPL scientists in their open-collar polo shirts answering questions from reporters dressed as business people. This is a long way from Vietnam.

Dr. Golombek led the Answer Team during the phone conference. He summarized the Pathfinder team's scientific goals:

"We'd like to get to more rocks -- Calvin and Hobbes, to Scooby Doo and to Pooh Bear and Piglet, to Little Mermaid and the rock garden. We'd like to get up the hill near Yogi and see what's on the other side. We'll keep going, with the lander falling asleep at night, until something breaks. Eventually the hot and cold temperatures will affect the lander or the rover. And yes, we will get a 'gee whiz' image of Earth from Mars."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.

Topics: Space, astronomy and planetary science

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