IAC 2016, Part 2: Moonshots and deep oceans

The International Astronautical Congress had been full of interesting talks, people and events. We’ve already discussed the budding race to Mars, but there was so much more to the IAC. It would be a mistake to reduce it all to proposals of crewed missions to the Red Planet. In this part, we will discuss robotic Mars exploration and its astrobiological implications, the Moon Village concept, visions of future icy moons exploration, and last but not least the student program on the IAC.

The search for life, quakes and more on Mars

What’s up in planned robotic exploration of Mars? Ramon de Paula summarized the development of NASA’s InSight mission, delayed last year due to the malfunction of the SEIS instrument. The seismometer needs vacuum inside the chamber to work properly, but unfortunately maintaining it had proven a problem. It was solved soon, nevertheless, and the spacecraft is scheduled to launch in the next flight window in 2018. I’m very much looking forward to the mission, because we need to know so much more about geophysics of Mars to explain some of its peculiar features (such as the thickness of its elastic litosphere), and subsequently learn more about planetary formation and evolution, differences between terrestrial planets and more.

It would be nice if the seismometer still worked in 2020, when the ExoMars lander and rover should land on Mars. The lander also contains a seismometer, and having two of them working at the same time would be magnitudes better than just one, although synthesis from the data of both most likely wouldn’t be easy. ESA’s ExoMars program (in collaboration with Roscosmos) was the subject of several talks, ranging from the mission status of the first phase (to undergo orbit insertion on October 19; the Schiaparelli lander has detached this Sunday), through the second phase (scheduled for 2020, consisting of a lander and rover) to planetary protection measures. It’s the first primarily astrobiological mission since the Vikings. Another one is being prepared by NASA: its Mars 2020 rover.

As to astrobiological possibilities on Mars, Petra Rettberg’s talk about results from microorganisms from natural Mars analogue environments was most interesting to me. Her findings dispute the long-held assumption about connection between dessication tolerance and radiation tolerance. Eya Rodriguez’s and Michaela Musilova’s talks also concerned Mars-like environments and implications we can derive from Earth organisms living in them. More on that (including ExoMars and Mars 2020) sometime later, though; it’s material for a more in-depth take.

Return to the Moon?

I have already talked about the contrast between SpaceX’s and Lockheed Martin’s concepts in the previous part of this post, but there is another vision that stands in an interesting contrast to Musk’s plans. They’re visions that don’t exclude each other at all, and could well be implemented at the same time. The contrast lies in the approach. Musk talks about grand plans of Mars colonization, having a million people there by the end of the century, and it’s basically SpaceX’s job to make it happen. Then we’ve got a vision that starts with going to the Moon, and can start primarily with basic research, applications, mining, crewed missions – essentially any of that, depending on the initial participants. The possibilities are vast, and the concept consciously avoids constraining them too much, or the participants. It’s supposed to be as open as possible in both of these aspects; built on science on one hand and international, multi-level cooperation on the other.

I’m talking about the Moon Village, a concept introduced by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner last year. What would it mean in practice? The idea is to build a station on the far side of the Moon (possibly near the south pole, advantageous not only by the presence of water in some craters, but also because potential telescopes could avoid coming into the Sun’s glare). We could build powerful telescopes there without the interference of signals from Earth, utilizing local resources in their construction (e.g. by 3D printing structures using the lunar regolith as a substrate). Building a huge radiotelescope on the Moon seems much more plausible than assembling it in orbit or some Lagrange point. We still lack experience building large structures in microgravity, and Moon offers useful locations as well as materials and gravity, albeit low. In addition, having a refueling station on the Moon would make exploration of outer parts of the solar system easier.

A Moon base would also provide grounds for much needed experiments on long-term plant, animal or microbial survival, reproduction and development in low gravity conditions. Moreover, we could learn valuable lessons on fertilizing regolith to use it for plant cultivation; something very much needed for example for future Mars colonization. The Moon is right here. We’ve been there, and we know how to do it again. The health risks for a crew are acceptable. Possible resupply or evacuation scenarios plausible. Technologies such as regolith-coated inflatable habitats more responsibly testable. Scientific as well as applied, engineering and mining possibilities vast.

How would such an endeavor fare? After all, we’d need some sort of overseeing if space agencies, universities, institutes, mining and other commercial companies were to work together. That was one of the questions discussed in the Moon Village jam session Thursday morning on the congress. I actually see ESA as a good basis upon which to model the Moon Village: an example of successful international collaboration ensuring return of investments of its members, giving them certain freedom in choosing their contributions but at the same time getting the obligatory common projects done, collaborating with commercial entities such as Arianespace… Lots of details would have to be different for the Moon Village, but the workings of ESA might present a good foundation for such undertaking. This and more was discussed in the Moon Village jam session at the IAC. In any case, talks with possible participants are underway. We can start pondering research proposals or perhaps educational programs tied to the Moon Village already, and we’ll see how the concept fares in the following years. I wish it does well; we need a project like this one.

To the icy moons!

Apart from Mars and Moon, gas giants’ icy moons are a highly emerging topic lately. New models of Enceladus’ structure, or HST’s detection of Plumes on Europa, are drawing even more attention to these objects that constitute possible environments for the study of emergence of life or prebiotic conditions. Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan even got their own plenary by Jonathan Lunine and Brent Sherwood. ESA’s JUICE and NASA’s Europa Mission have been presented at the IAC too. These missions should be the core of widening our knowledge about Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. I especially appreciated the talk about JUICE’s cutting-edge navigation system, which will enable the spacecraft to perform operations with much more autonomy and precision. Future mission concepts such as Sylph, Europa Tomography Probe or IceShuttle were also presented.

Sylph is a concept for an addition of small probes to the Europa Mission, which would enable gathering data from plume flyby. You have probably noticed the announcement that HST detected water plumes on Europa (Sparks et al. 2016). It corroborates the sometimes disputed detection of water vapor earlier (Roth et al. 2014). If the water comes from Europa’s subsurface ocean, it would be a source of valuable scientific data (if it comes e.g. from pockets of water inside the icy crust, it would be exciting too, albeit a little less). However, sampling the plumes wouldn’t be so easy as in the case of Enceladus. I don’t mean that we so far don’t know how often and where exactly they occur on Europa. I’m talking about the height they can reach. It’s lower in Europa’s higher gravity, and below the planned Europa Mission flybys. That’s why a set of small plume-sampling-purpose probes such as Sylph would be so practical. There is currently no plan to include Sylph or any other concept in the Europa Mission itself, but future spacecraft could carry similar probes.

Europa Tomography Probe is a Europa orbiter concept: a small spacecraft designed to gather sensitive gravitational and magnetic measurements; also a proposed addition to the Europa Mission. While it almost definitely won’t fly with it, again, it would be useful to implement such mission in the future. It would give us much more data about Europa’s structure, gravitational field map, tidal response, obliquity or rotation than the Europa Mission or ESA’s JUICE. A passing notion about the possibility of discovering if Europa by any chance doesn’t have an intrinsic magnetic field got me very excited. The Galileo spacecraft only detected an intrinsic magnetic field for Ganymede (which makes it one of only three known terrestrial bodies with one: Mercury, Earth and Ganymede), but what if Europa has one that fell beneath the threshold? Rather unlikely, if I may guess, but I have previously took its absence for granted based on Galileo’s results, and I just realized that we know that Europa doesn’t have a substantial intrinsic magnetic field, but cannot be entirely certain it has none. I have discovered a paper on the constraints for an intrinsic magnetic field by Schilling, Khurana & Kivelson (2004), and a previous paper by Kivelson et al. (1999).

The Teredo IceShuttle is one of several existing cryobot concepts. While all of them are still far from anything that would be able to reliably go through Europa’s icy shell and send data back (which is not a complaint: they’re cutting-edge tech), I was very pleasantly surprised with the IceShuttle presentation. The cryobot would consist of a thermal drill, a set of “underwater GPS nodes”, an explorer robot capable of diving to the bottom to search for hydrothermal vents and a “recharging station” for it. When I asked about communication with the surface, Mr. Wirtz said that although this concept doesn’t include this part of the question yet, there are good ideas about it out there, one being transceivers embedded inside the icy shell, released gradually by the cryobot during its descent (Bryant 2002). More on the subjects of the icy moons and related mission concepts somewhere else, though; a detailed take would be out of the scope of this blogpost.

Allow me just one brief mention of another notable talk, and one mention of an event coinciding with the IAC. Sushil Atreya’s great presentation of entry probes for the exploration of gas and ice giants, which would help us among other things to distinguish whether core first or gravitational instability growth played a major role in the formation of the giant planets, whether an ionic ocean is present on Neptune, how do the atmospheres scale, and much more. The Juno orbiter will tell us a lot about Jupiter, but atmospheric entry probes would be a very nice addition (ideally for all of the giant planets in the long term). As for the event, I mean the conclusion of the Rosetta mission, a great finale for a great spacecraft. We will see what science gets done based on its results in the coming years. 

Before I conclude: don’t get the wrong impression about the congress from me. Most of it is engineering (be it telecommunication, navigation, propulsion, aeronautics, mechanical engineering, imaging…), and then some business, space medicine and psychology, outreach, science, law and policy… But my primary interest lies in scientific exploration, and the astrobiology and solar system exploration sessions were of the highest interest to me.

So – what exactly did I do at the IAC? I have submitted a talk about using astrobiology for education and outreach, and I was very lucky and very honored to have been selected by ESA for the ESA Education’s Student Scholarship program, which enabled me to attend the IAC. I wish to express my immense gratitude to ESA for giving me this great opportunity, and I hope I can give something back in turn. I’m also very grateful to the university departments supporting my activities: Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology (at the Department of Philosophy and History of Science, Faculty of Science, Charles University) and Department of Geophysics (Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University).


Among other things, I have shown some of the articles for Czech magazines we’d prepared. Yes, I have a special fondness for the icy moons… Credit: Peter Schulte

I have had my talk in the Calling Planet Earth: Space Outreach to The General Public session Thursday morning. I do hope my contribution was useful to people wishing to start or expand their educational and outreach activities, and I have had several good suggestions on how to proceed with our activities. It’s true that we need to expand more beyond traditional methods, and we’re considering several options how to achieve that. Stay tuned! In the meantime, we’re continuing with articles in Vesmír, Přírodovědci, XB-1, Nedd.cz, Osel.cz and elsewhere, and we’re already putting together the program for the summer semester’s astrobiology seminar for the public.

Being one of the ISEB (International Space Education Board, of which ESA is a member) sponsored students, I have also participated in the ISEB activities. I have seen lots of great presentations by other sponsored students from all over the world, could be a part of an outreach activity for children, and went through several cultural workshops and events. And among the ESA events, the best highlight was meeting the agency’s Director General Jan Woerner, with whom we, as ESA-sponsored students, spent an hour in discussion, talking about the recent ESA’s Citizens’ Debate, Woerner’s “Space 4.0” plan, the Moon Village, opportunities for young scientists and engineers, and more space topics.


ESA students. We all enjoyed the IAC very much! Credit: ESA Education

To wrap it up, the IAC has been wonderful. I’ve seen a lot of interesting talks, met lots of great inspiring people, got a few ideas for educational/popular science programs back home, enjoyed the congress exhibition (one example for all: KARI had a great VR tour of their spacecraft test facilities. Very good idea, and interesting especially after having seen the ESTEC a week before and learning more about the testing!)

Czech-speaking readers already could have read my short report from Elon Musk’s talk, scribbled in the afternoon following it, and can look forward to a couple of more in-depth articles on various topics, also some talks about the congress (at the KosmoKlub the last October Wednesday and maybe also the Faculty of Science; more info will follow in due time). Both English-speaking and Czech-speaking readers should be able to read my interview with ESA’s DG Jan Woerner in the foreseeable future.

I may be a bit old-fashioned concerning public education and outreach. Though I participate in new interactive programs e.g. at summer camps, most of what I do (beside being a biologist, and a SF writer and translator) is basically a blend of science journalism and outreach: writing themed articles, doing interviews… It’s not where I intend to stop, but it’s where I hope I can make some difference. And if you have read this far, although this is more of a personal congress overview blogpost than a very engaging article on its own, I may possibly have done that. We’ll see.

Before I say goodbye for now, let me direct your attention to DPS-EPSC, the joint European-American planetary science congress that has just started in Pasadena. While I’m not there, I will try to follow the news from there closely. I’m sure we have a lot to look forward to (not only) in that field.

The highlight video for IAC 2016. Credit: IAF

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