Dreaming about Rocks from the Red Planet:
Scientific Goals and Engineering the Mars Missions
A lecture by Erik M. Conway
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Sunday, March 4, 2018, at 4 p.m.
in Episcopal Parish Hall, Eastsound, WA
Planetary scientists have sought to collect and examine samples from Mars since the beginning of the space age over fifty years ago. But although there are already Mars rocks on Earth, blasted off the red planet by meteor impacts and collected in Antarctica, they are not sufficient. As ancient artifacts, they are in effect random samples devoid of geological context and thus cannot address important scientific questions. So planetary scientists seek to collect specific samples from the Mars surface. This research goal makes it an engineering problem. In this talk, Conway will connect the scientific desire to connect such samples to the design of Mars rover missions, including a forthcoming sample-return mission, and to the changing priorities of NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Erik Conway is a historian of science and technology at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He studies the history of space exploration and examines the intersections of space science, earth science, and technological change. With Naomi Oreskes, he is coauthor of the bestselling book on climate-change denial, Merchants of Doubt, for which they won the History of Science Society’s Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize in 2012. Conway is author of four other books, including his latest work, Exploration and Engineering: JPL and the Quest for Mars (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). In 2017, he received the prestigious Athelstan Spilhaus Award of the American Geophysical Union for his many contributions to public engagement with earth and space sciences.
Caltech Professor Emeritus Barry Barish, who delivered an engaging Orcas Currents lecture on the subject in July 2016, has just been awarded a share of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for his crucial contributions to the discovery of gravity waves.
These delicate ripples in the fabric of spacetime were first detected in September 2015 by the Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory (LIGO), built under his leadership during the late 1990s. Professor Barish will share the Prize — to be officially awarded in Stockholm on December 10 — with physicists Rainer Weiss of MIT and Kip Thorne of Caltech, who conceived the project and led it during the 1980s.
Over a billion years ago, two massive black holes — one tipping the scales at 36 times the mass of the sun and the other at 29 times — merged into one that weighed in at 62 solar masses. Spacetime shuddered. The resulting difference of three solar masses was converted into sheer energy according to Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2, briefly releasing more energy than all the stars in the visible universe.
Gravity waves from this black-hole merger spread out through the universe at the speed of light. They finally reached Earth eons later, stretching it ever so slightly in one dimension and squeezing it in another. Two ultrasensitive detectors called “laser interferometers,” one at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Eastern Washington and the other in Louisiana, detected this feeble spacetime vibration several milliseconds apart, triggering what promises to become a major revolution in physics.
LIGO researchers have since recorded three more stunning black-hole mergers, the last this past August. When the interferometers are eventually tuned to their highest sensitivities, scientists expect to be able to detect almost one gravity wave passing through Earth per day! Predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity, gravity waves and the black-hole mergers that generate them are about to become commonplace events.
On July 24, 2016, Professor Barish recounted this spectacular scientific discovery in an Orcas Currents lecture titled “Gravity’s Music: Einstein, Black Holes and Cosmic Chirps.” Over 150 islanders listened raptly. Here is the video of his presentation:
A high-energy physicist by training, Barry Barish served as the Principal Investigator and Founding Director of the LIGO Laboratory. He is widely credited as the skillful manager who finally got these sprawling, L-shaped facilities built — with each arm four kilometers or 2.5 miles long — enabling the discovery to occur. “Without him there would have been no discovery,” said Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, a theorist.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Professor Barish is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society, in which he served as President.
Soon to end its third successful year and planning a fourth, the Orcas Currents lecture series hopes to bring to this island a continuing stream of similarly distinguished lecturers on science, technology, and culture.
Following an extremely successful third year of Orcas Currents lectures in 2017, we are looking forward to an equally strong and enlightening series of events this year. Those lecturers included the nationally renowned Hedrick Smith, as well as one of our own local authorities, Jonathan White.
This year, the Orcas Currents Steering Committee has been working diligently to bring you the best lecturers on science, technology, and culture we can find and afford to bring to Orcas Island. Our special focus has been on broadening our offerings into the cultural arena implied by our mission statement.
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