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Planetary Scientists: Do You Have the Mettle?
Columnist: Dr. James Green

Planetary Scientists: Do You Have the Mettle?
December 2010

Those of you following the latest planetary science news on the JAXA Venus Climate Orbiter (VCO) may believe that the VCO mission failed, but I'd like to offer a different perspective.

Planetary science is not for people needing immediate gratification, and it's not for the faint of heart. VCO did not make it into Venus orbit, but through collaborative efforts with the Deep Space Network we know that VCO is alive and orbiting the sun. That means the spacecraft will be back in 2016 for another potential opportunity to get into Venus orbit. The JAXA team is a determined group, and we want to help them anyway we can and cheer them on to success. They have the mettle.

Planetary missions, more often than not, take years to reach a destination -- venturing through harsh radiation environments, asteroid fields, and the very cold deep recesses of the solar system. We never know what we will ultimately find. But we do know that each discovery is a brick in the foundation being built today that leads to a deeper understanding of our solar system. And that takes time.

Consider, for example, Saturn's moon Titan. In the 1990's, ground observing telescopes pictured a moon with a thin atmosphere. Following the inquiry-based method that defines science, questions were posed and spacecraft built and launched. Over a fifteen year process, the Cassini spacecraft peered through Titan's atmosphere and found the lacey patterns of what we recently learned are methane lakes -- something we never envisioned two decades before. And now some scientists believe Titan is the perfect model of an early Earth analog.

And what of arsenic-eating microbes? A recent announcement from our Astrobiology Program showcased research led by Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon regarding microbes found in Mono Lake, Calif., that can use arsenic in place of phosphorus in their makeup."While this organism could turn out to be an isolated case, it also might point to the possible existence of other alternatives to the standard biochemical components of life," concluded Dr. Wolfe-Simon.

What an exciting possibility! It has been said that "discovery happens at the margins," and this is a perfect example. Cross-disciplinary research between traditional biology and chemistry enabled the arsenic finding. Do we have the mettle to take down stovepipes in order to make breakthrough discoveries? I know that answer is "yes" in planetary science. Felisa and her co-authors provided evidence of that last week.

Yet what I also see in some blogs and other circles is a rash of criticism of this finding steeped perhaps in misunderstandings. Don't get me wrong, dialogue is welcomed. It is what the scientific process is founded upon. But let's ensure the debate is conducted through the peer-review research and publication process.

The American Geophysical Union's upcoming meeting makes this month the perfect time to talk about what makes us uniquely planetary scientists and our foremost obligation as scientists: sharing our science.

NASA's Planetary Science Chief, James L. Green, at AGU discussing Year of Solar System events, December 15, 2010.
NASA's Planetary Science Chief, James L. Green, at AGU discussing Year of Solar System events, December 15, 2010.

The AGU's twice yearly meetings bring together a larger contingent of scientists than any other U.S. science gathering. As many as 18,000 researchers representing solar physics, planetary science, Earth science, and other science disciplines will converge on San Francisco December 13th through 17th to share their latest research results. It's all about bringing together a critical mass of people who are experts in certain areas, and then extending that expertise through collaboration.

Indeed these days it's rare to do research by yourself. Scientists generally work together now. Many years ago, when some of our scientific disciplines were just emerging, it was commonplace for specific research areas to draw only a few scientists. But with the recent knowledge explosion, the emphasis has shifted to how all our findings are connected. In fact Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her team are standing on the threshold of a door opened by Dr. Ron Oremland and others who have conducted arsenic research for many years.

As planetary scientists, we can reap more returns than ever before through this interweaving of knowledge across disciplines. Everyone brings something to the table. Everyone has something to share. And that's what makes breakthrough discoveries happen!

The impact of such teamwork can be huge. For example, it has kindled new discoveries about the origin and evolution of our solar system. The discoveries are happening so fast that even before we can rewrite the textbooks that need rewriting, they'll have to be rewritten again!

And it is critical that we share our revolutionary science not just with each other but also with the public. Yes, publish your papers, but also tell the public about your discoveries. People are hungry for information about what we do and what we find. They want to know, and we want them to know.

There's a revolution going on in planetary science around the world, and you know it. You're participating in it. You're making it happen. Together we're extending the boundaries of the knowledge of life beyond Earth's atmosphere -- into the solar system and beyond. It's a thrilling ride! Let's take the public with us! We've got the mettle to do it.


NOTES

For more information on AGU, see http://www.agu.org/ .

For more information on the Venus Climate Orbiter, also known as Akatsuki, see this brief mission overview and Science@NASA: Japanese Spacecraft Approaches Venus.


Read More by Dr. James Green

About: Dr. James Green
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Dr. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters. He views his job as the keeper of NASA's planetary program and the top advocate for that program to flourish and grow.
Read More by Dr. James Green
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