Monday, June 1, 2009

Planetary Systems: An Evolutionary Process

Searching for extra-solar objects is not a new effort, but improved technology and the location of over 300 exo-planets, to date, has accelerated this research. Is the building of these exoplanets a gradual evolutionary process? Does that process reach a stopping point as apparently our solar system has or is it ongoing? Will some of our new discoveries be of systems in an early stage of that evolutionary process?  If these planet formations are accidental then can they be regarded as evolutionary?  Click here for NASA plans presentation.

The forgoing are just a few examples of the questions that have been and are being asked by astronomers, astrophysicists and astrobiologists.  Finally, as we are beginning to see, a more intensive study of our own solar system will be most helpful in understanding the entire process. In this regard, one of the key considerations of the National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey of Planetary Science, is to better understand the "origins and evolution of habitable worlds"; starting with our own solar system.

Where's da money?  Right now, NASA is undergoing intensive scrutiny both organizationally and financially as a result of both our national budget crunch and the arrival of a new NASA chief-in-waiting. For example, the Congress has, provisionally, cut over $300 million from NASA's exploration budget.  This may be modified, but it still poses a threat to programs that investigate both our solar system and our galaxy.  NASA is science, and when it becomes NASA Interupted the entire world loses. Both Congressional committees and the National Academies of Science are assessing NASA's goals. Hopefully, they will present to NASA's new boss a set of recommendations that will keep the agency moving forward and especially in the exploration and study of our solar system.

A duel evolutionary process.  No I have not misspelled dual.  What we are looking at, as mentioned above, is a dual process of proper funding and managment support and a carefully planned set of missions that have a dual impact.  The dual impact of the missions is expected to: (a) expand and improve our knowledge of our solar system, including planet Earth, and (b) provide vital background data that will directly aid in the exo-solar research that is now underway. The dueling is and will continue to occur between funding sources and a variety of organizations, some within NASA, each having a set of mission goals that they would like to see become operational.  The challenge is to accomplish the proper mix of money and mission to move our science and techonolgy steadily forward with a minimum of interruptions or detours.

Man vs Bot or Man and Bot.  There is a great deal of serious inquiry and scientific investigation underway to better understand the physiological risks of extended manned exploration of outer space. This provokes some lively discussions from both scientists and accountants.  The scientists take sides based on their assessment of the best way to conduct extended investigations of our solar system. The accountants, of course, see potential money saved by programs that are not "burdened" (their words) by the heavy costs of man-rated systems.  

Well, it is hoped that wiser heads in both areas, science and finance, will see that we must have a Man and Bot plan.  This is not what we have now. We need to develop a plan that optimizes both, with safety of both man and bot of high priority.  We should look to send humans in only after extensive robotic exploration to thus reduce extended exposure of humans to harmful environments (the LRO mission is an example).  That's right I do not see us colonizing any of our planetary neighbors for extended periods.  The cost benefits ratios are too marginal.  Increasing the sophistication and technology of robots dramatically changes that ratio in our favor.  When humans go out to another planet we are not explorers, we are investigators.  We go to specific areas and investigate and assess what is there.  We use our Bot buddies to do the exploring as they are doing now on and around our solar system's planets.

The glorious fantasy of it all.  I started this article with reference to our search for extra-solar bodies and the very thought of finding an Earth-like twin that may actually contain life. This stimulates our imaginations by a factor of 10 or better.  This is not a bad thing because it helps make space science a public interest.  We should not, however, let it warp how we go about our continuing investigation of the entire universe.  In this regard, what we learn and use from our explorations and assessments of our Sun and its array of planets is going to fill us with new knowledge. This will improve our success in understanding all that is around and within us. Doing this constructively and sometimes very patiently is going to make us far smarter than we are now. Most importantly it is an essential evolutionary step to insure we are around to make all those discoveries out there. They are waiting for us to do it right.  So, not only are we seriously investigating the evolution of our universe and all its wonders, we,hopefully, are experiencing an evolution in our scientific and socio-economic prowess.  This will open whole new areas of knowledge and self-awareness that will be both humbling and stimulating.  Well, I say, "Grab your Bot-buddy and let's get started."

Credits: The image on the left above is an artists representation of the Gliese planetary system. The source is the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for the astro-sciences.

My Celestia (c) 2009 Waddell Robey - All individual copyrights apply.