Astrobiology —- the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe —- late 19th-century French artist Paul Gauguin “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” (D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?). Gauguin, at one point a Paris stockbroker, would no doubt have been surprised that NASA adapted his 1897 post-impressionist painting as a credential for its astronomy program.
Gauguin’s masterpiece has its roots in Tahiti, where he risked everything in a gamble designed to discover the essence of who he was. By the same token, the emerging young scientific field of astrophysics is doing something very similar in academia to understand our origins and whether we are alone in the universe.
But is astrophysics too risky when it comes to robotic space missions?
That’s the question I posed to Stockholm University astrophysicist Wolf Geppert last month at the European Astrobiology Institute’s (EAI) biennial scientific meeting on the Spanish island of La Palma.
We are generally very dangerous in science, Geppert, president of the EAI, told me at the La Palma conference. This, he says, may have to do with an inherent difference between business and science. In business, he says, you can measure risks and gains in euros, but in science it’s not so easy to put a monetary value on potential scientific gains.
Convincing the public to do high-risk science is becoming increasingly difficult, says Geppert.
Part of the problem, he says, is that the public is now asking why we should invest in spaceflight when we have pressing terrestrial problems like climate change and the ability to provide health care to a growing aging population.
Therefore, politicians and other officials are under great pressure not to invest money in science, which leads to a certain risk aversion, Geppert says. He says you don’t really want to be responsible for a project that fails and costs a lot of money.
But space science has a lot to contribute to climate research, Geppert says.
Since its inception in 1999, the Geppert Institute has been a non-profit organization primarily funded by the Consortium of European Universities and Scientific Institutes.
Often, you’ll see a lot of reductions in spaceflight and often at the expense of the astronomy-related parts of the program, Geppert says. Often you start with a very ambitious work plan, and due to financial and other issues, a lot of the payload drops, he says.
There’s also the sheer number of aerospace projects that end up on the cutting room floor.
Geppert says this means losing time and work designing a mission that will never come to fruition due to a lack of funding.
Despite such shortcomings, astronomical exploration has a history of bringing accidental technological benefits back to Earth.
Geppert’s favorite example is mass spectrometers, which are used to determine the chemical makeup, mass, and composition of a given scientific sample.
Before NASA’s Viking mission to Mars, such spectrometers were room-sized devices, Geppert says. But MIT chemist Klaus Beeman soon tackled the difficult task of making a mass spectrometer small enough to go on a spacecraft, he says. People realized that desktop mass spectrometers were possible, and they revolutionized analytical methods in applications ranging from isotope dating to airport security, Geppert says.
What should Europe do in astrophysics that it is not already doing?
Using an integrated approach to research, practice and public engagement in astrobiology is something EAI can and should accomplish, Geppert says. Astrobiology, he says, is a field that cannot be tackled by a national research community.
To that end, around 250 young astrophysicists from all over Europe came to La Palma for a week of presentations and informal discussions.
When I was a student, the physical chemistry and organic chemistry departments didn’t talk to each other, says Geppert. But these early career scientists here have grown up in astrophysics and are used to interdisciplinary work, he says.
How about answering Paul Gauguin’s final questions?
The more tasks a given nation or group and nation undertakes, the more common they become, and the faster we benefit scientifically and technologically. NASA achieved its goal of landing men on the moon within a decade of Kennedy’s clarion call.
It’s going to take dozens more robotic missions to all parts of our solar system, and some new space telescopes capable of detecting biosignatures from distant planets. But we will not be able to answer this most fundamental of all questions until humanity fully undertakes that task.
„Oddany rozwiązywacz problemów. Przyjazny hipsterom praktykant bekonu. Miłośnik kawy. Nieuleczalny introwertyk. Student.