NASA's new chief scientist aims high

Space agency is looking to explore Mars, other planets

Climate change, budget sequestration, life on other planets and the geology of Mars are among the things on the mind of NASA's new chief scientist, Dr. Ellen Stofan, who made a visit to NASA Ames Research Center last week.

Standing in front of Ames' massive "Hyperwall" -- a display screen which showed detailed images of our galaxy, Mars' landscape and Earth's ocean currents, among other things Stofan said she believes that evidence of life will be found on another planet within Earth's solar system.

"I believe that at some point we will find that life has evolved on some other body, or multiple bodies in our own solar system," Stofan said. "That's behind our movement out to Mars, to better understand Mars, our interest in the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn -- to get at this question of 'What are the limits of the evolution of life?'"

Stofan made a name for herself as a Brown University graduate student of geology, doing original analysis of data gathered by Russia's missions to Venus, which lead her to be hired by NASA as a deputy scientist on NASA's 1989 Magellan mission to Venus. More recently she was slated to lead the first nautical mission in outer space. Though it was never funded, the Titan Mare Explorer would have put a floating lander on the icy oceans of Titan in 2016. Titan is a moon of Saturn where some believe life may exist in bodies of liquid ethane or methane.

Stofan explained her new focus on Mars, where she wants to see geologists "picking up rocks" in the not-too-distant future.

"It has an atmosphere, a significant enough gravity field, it's the only place in our solar system where we could really go, with lots of resources," she said of Mars after a high resolution image of the Mars landscape -- taken by NASA's Mars rover -- was displayed on the Hyperwall behind her.

"Who wouldn't want to go walk on the surface of Mars, pick up one of the rocks and look for that life that maybe once evolved on the surface of that planet?" she said.

NASA Ames scientist William Borucki is leading NASA's Kepler space telescope mission, which has found numerous habitable planets outside of our solar system. Stofan said Kepler "has literally rewritten the textbooks on how solar systems form, on how may habitable planets there are. Ames is really a part of that."

NASA is working on a new space telescope to launch in 2018, called the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is set to characterize the atmospheres of other planets using infrared technology. Borucki has said that such work could be the key to finding evidence of a technological society elsewhere in the universe, by finding traces of non-natural gases in their atmospheres.

Stofan said there is "a focus on getting JWST up, and starting to pursue those basic questions about trying to find and characterize other planets around other stars.

If humans are to settle on other planets, the International Space Station is key in developing the technologies to make that possible, Stofan said.

"The International Space Station is such an amazing national asset," Stofan said. "We're doing research that is literally changing how we look at the human body. There's all kinds of effects that happen in space, from bone density loss, to muscle atrophy to changes in the immune system. This research we're doing on the International Space Station is critical to study the long-term effects of space on the human body because I'm not satisfied -- and I don't know if you are satisfied -- with staying in low Earth orbit. We want to move beyond low Earth orbit."

==B Climate change a chief concern

Stofan said that NASA is working "very closely" with President Barack Obama's administration on a plan for dealing with climate change on Earth.

"I think the scientific community is scared to death about climate change and the general public is not quite there yet," Stofan said. "Our climate is changing and it is changing at a rapid rate. NASA is taking measurements and documenting what is actually happening, from ocean salinity to higher winds, precipitation and soil moisture," all part of efforts to better predict climate change, she said. "It's one message I think is critical."

On the Hyperwall, the currents of all the Earth's oceans were shown moving at a rate of four days per second. "See that sloshing right there, that's the (effects of the) moon," said Bryan Biegel, acting deputy director of NASA's Advanced Supercomputing Division, pointing to the display.

"Those visualizations of the ocean current, those are the kind of measurements we're making at NASA," Stofan said. "If the effects of climate change continue, we'll have a better handle on what's happening and why. That is so critical right now as this planet continues to morph."

"Everything we do at NASA is amazing science and it's all interconnected," Stofan said. "We're really trying to answer some fundamental questions. Are we alone? How did our universe form and evolve? And what is the ultimate fate, not just of ourselves but of our galaxy and its planets -- our universe?"

Such research is threatened by the federal government's ongoing budget issues, Stofan said. NASA faces the threat of another budget sequester in January.

"For us as an agency that is always looking five, 10, 20 years down the line, the fiscal situation we are in is incredibly difficult," Stofan said. "It makes it very hard to plan and is hard on our workforce."


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Posted by Martin Omander
a resident of Rex Manor
on Dec 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Sounds like Dr Stofan has the right kind of experience for the job. Too bad Titan Mare Explorer never got funded. Wherever we have gone, we have discovered new and amazing things. Who knows what we would have found in the oceans of Titan?

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Posted by Confused
a resident of North Whisman
on Dec 4, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I don't quite get this human obsession to travel to Mars. Why? What for? "Why not?" is no answer. I'm an engineer by training and get Science and stuff but this is something I never understood. We're not satisfied with low earth orbit? We're not satisfied with the moon? What exactly does humanity hope to find out by exploring Mars?

Like this comment
Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Dec 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

The desire to explore is a basic human drive, if we listened to Confused above the Europeans would not have left home in 1492.

People said the same thing about going into near earth space, look what happened, the world has so many things derived from space.

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Posted by Confused
a resident of North Whisman
on Dec 4, 2013 at 7:08 pm

I was talking not from the perspective of someone who lives in Silicon Valley and enjoys the bounty that technological progress has so far provided, but the average human being on planet Earth. What do you, Rodger, know about what space has done for the average human? Or the plant or the animal kingdom? What did the Europeans achieve by leaving home in 1492 other than genocide of the Native American peoples and building up the capitalistic empire that has enslaved the planet and its inhabitants? You and I benefit from this but let's not lose the big picture. Think outside of yourself and how you have gained from it personally. There's no point in a public discussion if that's all that matters.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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