Date: February 12, 2010
Title: 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference Preview
Podcaster: Bob Hirshon
Description: Since the days of the Apollo missions, scientists from all over the world have been gathering in Houston each year to discuss the latest research in lunar and planetary science. In today’s podcast, we look back at the history of this conference, and look ahead to what will be discussed at this year’s meeting.
Bio: Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and host of the daily radio show and podcast Science Update. Now in its 23rd year, Science Update is heard on over 300 commercial stations nationwide. Hirshon also heads up Kinetic City, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. He oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, part of the Verizon Foundation Thinkfinity partnership. Hirshon is a Computerworld/Smithsonian Hero for a New Millenium laureate.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored by The Education and Outreach team for the MESSENGER mission to planet Mercury. Follow the mission as the spacecraft helps to unlock the secrets of the inner solar system at http://www.messenger-education.org
Hello, from snowy Washington, DC, and welcome to today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. I’m Bob Hirshon at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, host of the Science Update radio show and podcast.
Today, we are snowed in. The Federal Government is closed, so don’t even think about visiting your Congressperson to give him or her a piece of your mind. They are going up and down Capital Hill today on inner tubes and sleds—it is really something to see. AAAS where I work is also closed, so I am holed up at home in my basement office. I have no access to the studio, so you’ll have to use your imagination for any music or sound effects or special effects.
I’ll be telling you about the upcoming 41st annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Just as the snow was accumulating and the city was shutting down, I had a chance to talk with Stephen Williams about the conference. He’s Chief of Educational Initiatives at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. In a previous life, he was a Mars researcher and has been attending these conferences for decades.
So this year’s version of the conference will be happening in about two weeks, on March 1, in Houston, TX which for five days will become a Mecca for researchers studying the moon, planets and other solar system bodies.
It all began in March of 1968, as NASA was taking the final steps toward landing Apollo astronauts on the moon. President Lyndon Johnson visited the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, and announced the creation of the Lunar Science Institute. According to Williams the Institute was a gathering place for lunar researchers.
It was originally created along with the Apollo program, as the Lunar Science Institute. And that provided a good place for visiting scientists to come, be in residence academically for a while, work on the Apollo samples without necessarily having to have access to the Johnson Space Center all the time, they’re right next door.
The first home of the institute was at a lavish estate.
Initially, it was in a mansion that was built by Silver Dollar Jim West, a very flamboyant and colorful larger than life magnate, as Texas seems able to do, in the same vein as Diamond Jim Brady. The guy had very larg e appetites, threw lavish parties, was quite a character, and built a large mansion southeast of what is now the Johnson Space Center—in fact, he owned the land on which the Johnson Space Center was built—a big cattle ranch.
West had passed away many years earlier, and the mansion had been unoccupied. His widow donated it for the purposes of scientific research. While the first conferences featured dozens of researchers presenting primarily lunar research, the conference has now grown enormously and moved to much larger digs just outside of Houston.
There’ll be a thousand abstracts submitted in a year for this thing, give about 300 oral presentations, the rest poster… plan future collaborations.
And now, rather than just lunar research, the conference covers pretty much everything in the solar system. Williams says despite the conference breadth and the tremendous number of papers, the organizers set up the schedule so no one has to miss a talk in their field of interest.
A typical day at a conference of this scale would have three or four concurrent sessions, They try to theme the sessions so that you don’t have to feel like you’re in two places at once all the time. And the sessions will be themed depending on the specific planetary body or the specific planetary mission involved. When there’s results from an active mission available, there will typically be a session that is themed around that particular spacecraft. And it’s a great place for, say, each of the instrument teams to present their preliminary results. So typically you’d have the mission principle investigator, the mission scientist for the mission would chair a session that may have a dozen papers presented—ten-minute presentations with the latest results. There’d be an abstract volume and that would ultimately be turned into talks, or professional papers.
And, after hours, there are team building social activities, so the scientists can compare notes informally.
The idea is to facilitate people getting together to collaborate. Not quite in the same vein as in the old days when they would have cow chip tossing contests and chili cookoffs, and things Texas-like, but the same kind of things are being done, just on a larger scale.
While pretty much every planetary body and solar system process is represented at the conference, data from active missions is emphasized.
Some of the things that are certainly going to be presented and discussed are things that have leaked into the popular media. If you recall a few months ago, the L-Cross mission was crashed into the Moon to look for signs of water in the debris. I suspect those results will be shown.
Results from the MESSENGER spacecraft’s third fly by of Planet Mercury will be presented at a special session Tuesday afternoon. The MESSENGER team will deliver 13 papers on the planet’s geological history and interactions involving solar wind, Mercury’s magnetosphere, its internal field and its surface. There are papers on early volcanism on the planet, the morphology of its craters, discussions of its internal structure and on the mineralogical composition of the surface. Williams points out that with Mercury, we’ve really gone from famine to feast.
We had an unusual situation with Mercury: the Mariner 10 spacecraft actually visited Mercury three times, back in the seventies. But the orbital geometries were such that we only saw about sixty percent of the planet’s surface. And it’s only recently when MESSENGER started making fly-bys as part of its – the process by which it gets close enough to the Mercury to go into orbit, we’re now seeing the rest of the planet.
The MESSENGER team is already seeing it in incredible detail and next year, the spacecraft will achieve a stable orbit with Mercury, and give the scientists a really detailed look. Williams says Martian data collection has been going on longer, but new technology and long-term observation are giving Mars researchers a much more comprehensive picture lately, and a realization of just how active the planet is.
So we’re getting a much better understanding of the kinds of active, present day geological processes that are happening on Mars because we now have good enough imagery to actually be able to see small things on the surface. The capability of the cameras now in orbit around Mars would allow them to see beach-ball-sized objects on the surface. Our capability back in the seventies with the Viking spacecraft we would see building sized objects, or large room-sized objects instead. So the geological analyses we’re capable of now because of these data are much enhanced.
He says that in recent years, a substantial portion of the conference is dedicated to data coming in from missions that are long past their scheduled end date.
If a spacecraft survives launch and gets to where it’s going, usually it lasts a lot longer than we think it will. Certainly that’s been true of the Mars rovers. Those were 90-day missions that went six years plus—I wish my car warrantee were as strong as that. We have been in contact with some of the early planetary probes for decades after the design lifetime. And we’re still in communication with the Voyager spacecraft. So that’s some good longevity there, and we’re still getting at least a little bit of useful data from some of these older missions.
And while it’s not on the agenda, Williams says politics will also be a hot topic.
There will be I’m sure some discussion—maybe not necessarily on the conference room floor, but in the backrooms—about NASA’s changing plans for going back to the Moon, how that’s not going to happen anytime soon, what Plan B is going to be.
So there you have it. A preview of what’s going to be happening in just two short weeks at the biggest little space conference in Texas. And if this whets your appetite—or you just really want to leave behind the snow for a week—head on out to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Just Google 41st LPSC and you’ll get the link. [Cue the chuckwagon music, cross fading with cool asteroid/shooting star effects and the soft sweep of snowflakes.] For the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, I’m Bob Hirshon.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.