Micro 55: When humans leave Earth’s orbit

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A national and international desire to leave low-Earth orbit - “Human exploration beyond low Earth orbit is beginning to emerge again,” says planetary geologist Jim Head. “We want to start the discussion about where we want to go and what are our scientific reasons for going there.”

A national and international desire to leave low-Earth orbit “Human exploration beyond low Earth orbit is beginning to emerge again,” says planetary geologist Jim Head. “We want to start the discussion about where we want to go and what are our scientific reasons for going there.”

An international conference of  planetary geologists and NASA representatives, March 15-16, 2014, will begin discussions of destinations and scientific goals for the next generation of human space flight beyond low-Earth orbit. Well-trained human explorers, organizers say, can make discoveries robotic missions might miss.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With development underway on a new heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule, NASA is getting poised to send astronauts out of low-Earth orbit for the first time since the end of the Apollo program. The time is now to start planning the scientific goals for those future human missions, says Jim Head, professor of geological sciences at Brown University.

On March 15 and 16, 2014, in Woodlands, Texas, top planetary scientists and two Apollo astronauts will gather to discuss the future of human planetary exploration. Head is one of the organizers of “Microsymposium 55: Scientific Destinations for Human Exploration,” which is sponsored by Brown University, Russia’s Vernadsky Institute, MIT, and NASA’s Solar System Exploration Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

“Human exploration beyond low Earth orbit is beginning to emerge again,” Head says. “We want to start the discussion about where we want to go and what are our scientific reasons for going there.”

The symposium presentations will focus on destinations that are within human reach using current or near-future technology: the Moon, near-earth asteroids, Mars, and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Experts will present the current state of research in each location, outlining what we know about each, and what we’d like to know.

The conference will also draw on the experience of humans who have already ventured outside Earth’s orbit. David R. Scott, commander of Apollo 15, and Harrison H. “Jack’ Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, will discuss their experiences exploring the Moon.

“We have been to another planetary body before with Apollo,” says Head. “So let’s hear from those people about the kind of science they did and how that could be used as a template for future exploration.”

Apollo 15 and 17 were classified as J-type missions, which meant more mission time dedicated to science, including extended traverses in the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle. Those missions, Head says, were the most productive scientific explorations off of planet Earth.

The key to making those missions so successful was what Scott refers to as “science-engineering synergism.”

“The geologists and scientists worked together with engineers and managers to optimize the program,” Scott said. “It’s the kind of thing Jim Head and I are trying to emphasize ... so that the science community understands the engineering and the engineers understand the science. Working together, we get better science and better engineering.”

Robots have set the stage

While astronauts have stayed within Earth’s orbit in recent years, robotic spacecraft from NASA and other agencies have not. The Curiosity rover and its forebears, Spirit and Opportunity, have returned a treasure trove of data from Mars. NASA’s GRAIL mission has returned crucial data about the Moon’s gravity and the structure of its crust. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has given scientists an unprecedented global survey of the Moon’s mineralogy. NASA’s DAWN mission has given scientists their first close-up view of Vesta, one of the solar system’s largest asteroids.

But for all these robotic missions have accomplished, Head says, they don’t obviate human exploration.

“Every robotic mission going to any of these destinations is a precursor mission for humans,” he said. “If you think about the Moon, we have huge amounts of new data from robotic missions over the past 40 years. We know the individual boulders we want to go to and a little about their mineralogy. We really know how to plan the astronaut traverses, and we have great data for landing site safety and the design of scientific exploration traverses.”

Well-trained human explorers can make serendipitous discoveries that a robot might miss, said Head, who worked in astronaut training and mission operations in Houston Mission Control during the Apollo Lunar Exploration Program.

A case in point was the discovery of volcanic glass during Apollo 15. Scott and fellow astronaut James Irwin happened upon it during a rover trip across the Moon’s Hadley-Apennine region. They scooped some up some of the bright green glass beads and brought them back. More than 40 years later, those pieces of glass are still yielding vital information about the Moon’s history. In 2011, Brown geologist Alberto Saal used those samples to show that the Moon’s interior contains water in similar proportions to the interior of the Earth. Last year, Saal used the same samples to show that water inside the Earth and Moon come from the same source, which has substantial implications for understanding the Moon’s formation.

There are many more such discoveries waiting for humans, Head says.

“There’s a national and international desire to leave low-Earth orbit,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is really start the conversation about the scientific motivations for these missions.”

Editors: Brown University has a fiber link television studio available for domestic and international live and taped interviews, and maintains an ISDN line for radio interviews. For more information, call (401) 863-2476.

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