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OU Lecture 2007: Disappointments and science fiction

Updated Tuesday, 26th June 2007

'Disappointments and science fiction' is part 10 of The OU Lecture 2007 - Fingers Crossed: 50 years of space exploration by John Zarnecki

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Now I would like to round off by talking just a little bit about disappointment and about science fiction. First of all I am going to tell you about my attempt to be an astronaut. It's going back to the 1970s. I was an avid Guardian reader then. Well, you wouldn’t expect anything else from an OU academic would you? And I found this advert. This was 1977 I think. An advert in the Guardian to be an astronaut. This was the search for Europe’s first astronaut to fly on the Space Shuttle and each member of European Space Agency made its own selection. So I applied. I got as far as the last thirty from the UK. It was beginning to get quite serious. We had very detailed medical and psychological testing. So I went through all of that. And then I got my “Dear John,” letter. Well “Dear Mr Zarnecki,” – I didn’t even have my PhD then. “I am sorry to say that your name is not one of those which has been put forward.” They told me it was my eyesight. I actually think that I failed the psychological tests.

Now I would like to turn to science fiction. I have talked a bit about going to a comet. We have flown past the comets. It's easy isn't it? We’ve done it. Let’s be a bit more ambitious. Think about going to a comet and landing on it and then, with the expertise that we have here at the Open University, we could build an instrument that could analyse the material in the comet. We know – we learnt from Giotto, for example – that a comet is actually eighty per cent water ice. Some people think that the water on Earth, most of our water, might have been delivered by impact from comets, early in Earth’s history. If we could go to a comet, look at the water and measure the sort of fingerprint of that water and then compare it with that same fingerprint here on Earth, we could decide whether that is indeed true. Did water come from comets? Also, some people say that the building blocks for life, the organic molecules, the triggers for life, might also have been delivered by comets. Again our instruments, built here, could look for those organics. Well, I can reveal to you that is not science fiction. That is actually happening. This is a spacecraft called Rosetta and this is what it's going to look like – fingers crossed – on November 10th 2014. It was launched three years ago. It has already passed Mars. It's on its way to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko – another comet you will not have heard of. And it has a lander, which will separate from the main craft. It will land on the comet’s surface. And the instrument built by colleagues at the Open University will make those measurements that I have described.

Now, talking of life, which I was, in the context of water and organic molecules, well these days when we talk about life in the solar system we think about some exotic places like Europa and Enceladus, Titan and so on. But we always come back to Mars. Now we know with some certainty that Mars used to be very, very different. It was probably very wet. It had seas on it. Its atmosphere was thicker and it was almost certainly warmer. It was actually quite a nice place to be and it's quite likely that life could have got going on Mars. But things didn’t stay like that. Why?

Well, we know what Mars looks like today. It's like that. So Mars changed from its benign state into something like this. We would love to know why that happened. What triggered that change? Could it happen to us on Earth? But, more than that, supposing life did manage to get going – simple primitive life? We know that life is very smart; it's very tough. As the environment changed, might life have evolved? Might it, for example, have burrowed down below the surface to escape the dangerous radiation, which was no longer cut out by the atmosphere? Well, if that’s the case, could it still be there today or could there at least be the signs in fossil form? Well, what we would need to do is drill down below the surface to take a look. Perhaps something like this. That is ExoMars that I referred to earlier. So it is not science fiction. We are working on instruments to study the environment, the weather and especially the ultra violet radiation. It's never been measured. We know it's very, very severe but we don’t know how bad. Actually we predict that, to survive, for a human to survive exposed on the surface of Mars, you would need something like Factor 80,000 sun cream.

So finally, really, to finish off – and this really is science fiction. I am just going to say a few words about my favourite place, which has to be Titan. We found with Huygens and with Cassini something about it. I have only told you a tiny bit. It's an absolutely fascinating place. Huygens sampled just a few hundred square kilometres of the surface with the pictures and so on. There is eighty million square kilometres of Titan. It's a wonderful place. So we want to go back but we want to go back with mobility. We want to study the whole surface. So what we need to do I think, is to go back with a balloon. We calculate that it would take something like two weeks to do an entire circuit of Titan being blown by the winds. We could do a few circuits, survey the whole surface, decide which are the most interesting bits and then go down to where the greatest interest is. Maybe scoop up, suck up some of the liquid; analyse it in the instruments on board here. And my dream is that some of those instruments will be built here at the Open University. Now it is science fiction today but I can pretty well guarantee that maybe in twenty years time this will not be science fiction. This will be happening in the second fifty years of space exploration.

So, Vice-Chancellor – if you would like to make an ageing space scientist very, very happy, ten million quid please and for that I will even put the OU logo on Titan for you!

Fingers crossed. Thank you.


With thanks to:

  • NASA
  • ESA
  • Michael Carrol
  • Mark Robertson-Tessi
  • Ralph Lorenz

The Open University Lecture 2007

This is part 10 of 10





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