Whole worlds waiting to be revealed

I spent last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference just outside of Houston, Texas. With an annual attendance of around 2000, it’s the main conference for people who study the nature and history of the solar system. All day long, in four or five parallel sessions, the world’s community of planetary scientists, robotics engineers, and the like present their latest discoveries and hypotheses about all the strange worlds that we find near the Earth.

It served to remind me once again what a fantastic job I have. My main task, for the last week, was to listen to presentations about all the strange and surprising wonders that fill the solar system. To learn, discuss, meet with people who work on these things, and broaden and deepen my knowledge of the physical processes at work so I can better contribute to the development of technologies and missions to further explore and understand these strange worlds. Because that’s my job, after all: learn to do the things that enable space exploration. And boy, are those worlds strange enough to make exploring them irresistible.

Titan has a thick, hazy atmosphere, with storms that drop rain of liquid methane and ethane onto a surface made, it seems, of solid hydrocarbons and water ice, feeding rivers and and seas of liquid hydrocarbons. Vast fields of dunes are shaped by frigid winds, and overlie a probable subsurface ocean. Europa, too, probably has an ocean, underneath a thick layer of surface ice. Enceladus is covered in ice, too — ice so inexplicably reflective to both visible light and radio waves that it’s by far the brightest-looking object in the solar system. It doesn’t seem to have an ocean, yet jets of (mostly) water ice frequently erupt from its surface, feeding particles into Saturn’s outermost ring. Mars has dust-devils that clean robots. Venus has sulphuric acid rain. The asteroids range from loosely-bound piles of rubble to hunks of solid iron. There are co-orbital moons, storms bigger than the Earth, doomed retrograde satellites, and a persistent hexagonal vortex.

Why? How? What else? The solar system is strange, wonderful, and absolutely tantalizing. The more I learn about these incredible landscapes the more I want to uncover, explore and understand them. Who has time for science fiction when the real world is this crazy? When actual space exploration isn’t a matter of pushing buttons on magical spaceships, but coming up with ingenious solutions to the incredible challenges of making things work in these exotic environments? And it’s real. There are space probes exploring the planets right now. Even more, we’ve just come to the age when we can start studying planets around other stars, too — and we’re finding them by the hundreds.

But to see and study and even visit those worlds, it’s not enough to use our tools and reason cleverly. We have to invent new techniques and new technologies to even begin to see what’s out there. Nobody even knew that Jupiter had moons, let alone what they were like, until Galileo turned his telescope skyward. No probe to the planets is conceivable without Newton’s mechanics and calculus, and Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equations. Rocket science, though, is easy compared to space systems engineering. Building something real is way harder than writing down the mathematical model. It’s hard, and it’s complicated, and it’s an endless series of tremendous tasks, but it’s possible. And every time we apply a new technology, we find a new wonder, a new mystery, new answers and new questions. It never stops, but it just gets more fantastic. You need a Mariner 9 to find a Valles Marineris, but that just gives a reason to send a Viking and a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to learn more. I can never decide whether the science or the technology is more cool, but it doesn’t matter; they go hand in hand, and you need both — need to understand both — to uncover these wonders.

A week at LPSC leaves me with a renewed sense of excitement and wonder at the surprising things we continue to uncover, a tremendous yearning to know more, and a deep desire to take part in the further exploration of the worlds around us. I’ve got all the motivation I need to work with all my might to become knowledgeable, skilled, and in all manner excellent in all the capabilities I’ll need to work in this field. And to position myself to take real and meaningful part in making these kinds of space missions happen, now, and in my future career.

And they pay me to do this. Seriously, what better job is there, and how am I so fortunate?

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