Across the Universe: Fire and Ice

Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2006.

This year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston, has been unusually rich. We saw fiery dust from an ice-rich comet; startling images from Mars; a new type of lunar rock… and that was just on Monday morning. By Friday afternoon, I was exhausted.

I had already heard the Stardust results (see Across the Universe) at the Sunday welcome cocktail party when one of the mission scientists whispered to me, “We’ve found CAIs!” (Another friend on the team described Stardust Principle Scientist Don Brownlee’s first comment when they finally got the samples: “I can’t believe it actually worked!”)

These high-temperature grains of Calcium and Aluminum oxides that appear as Inclusions in certain meteorites are thought to represent the first solid materials to crystallize out from the hot gases that made the sun and planets. How did they wind up wrapped in comet ices, stored in the farthest reaches of our solar system? In fact, a controversial theory of the early Sun had predicted a powerful wind of plasma and magnetic fields that could have blown just such crystals outward, in streams above and below the disk of the planets. Suddenly this theory doesn’t look so unlikely.

On Wednesday, the team of the Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn showed their images of its moon Enceladus spewing geysers of liquid water out of its south pole. Does this water represent a global ocean under the Enceladus crust? Should we be looking there for signs of life?

That afternoon, the Deep Impact team had their turn. Recall (Across the Universe, June 25, 2005) that last July they’d flung a copper canister at nearly 40,000 km/hr into the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1. Their high speed movie showed a “puff” of superheated rock droplets at the instant of impact, followed by a cloud of dust and ice. Spectrometers on board recorded the chemical composition of the cloud; and watching it fall back to the comet let them measure the comet’s weak gravity. It is so low that the comet nucleus must be quite fluffy, more than half empty space.

Friday morning, the Japanese Hayabusa mission (Across the Universe, October 30, 2004) presented their results. Their target asteroid, Itokawa, also appears to be a rubble pile, 40% empty space, covered with boulders and gravel. Their lander picked up samples, but trouble with the spacecraft means they may not get them back to Earth until 2010, three years later than planned.

Perhaps giddy with these delightful results, several scientists presented some more adventurous speculations. Jonathan Lunine (University of Arizona), in a special prize lecture, suggested that we should send blimps to Titan (Across the Universe, January 29, 2005) to cruise its atmosphere, with occasional forays to the surface to look for life in its methane lakes.

Brett Gladmann (University of British Columbia) presented calculations showing that microbe-bearing meteorites launched by impacts from Earth could actually reach Titan. Would that provide the seeds of life for Jonathan’s blimps to find? “Don’t ask me,” Brett replied. “I’m just the pizza delivery boy.”

Not all was sunshine and fun. At a sober session Monday evening, the scientists heard the bad news that NASA is cutting their science budget by 15%, with Astrobiology (Across the Universe, April 24, 2004) chopped in half. Cost overruns with NASA’s shuttle, and the general dire state of the US budget, are to blame.

Indeed, the week before the meeting I had visited New Orleans, a city whose devastation is still indescribable. There are no shortages of places that need our resources, both financial and human. But for one week, a thousand planetary scientists remembered that this universe of storms and human tragedy is also a place of surprise and delight; that the joy of discovery can give us the strength to face tragedy. It is evidence of God’s presence across the Universe.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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