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Scientists, MPs, and NASA directors flock to Parliament to discuss planetary science’s impact on society

By news editor, on 12 September 2013

The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London.

The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London.


Written by Katrine Iversen, a current student at UCL and a European Planetary Science Congress science communication intern.

It’s packed in Parliamentary Committee Room 11 as the first Policy Meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) is due to begin in Parliament.

As a part of the EPSC, currently being held at UCL, people flocking to the meeting include MPs, NASA directors and scientists from all over the world, looking to discuss the importance of planetary science to society and how to ensure further growth and development within the field.

The meeting, which took place on Monday 9 September, was a huge success. Two members of the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee, Andrew Miller (MP for Ellesmere Port and Leston) and Dr Phillip Lee (MP for Bracknell), chaired the meeting while other MPs sent researchers to report back.

The meeting began with a talk by Dr Lewis Dartnell, from the University of Leicester and formerly of UCL, on the search for life on Mars. Astrobiology, the field of looking for life in space, tries to answer some of the most profound questions in the universe. Is the Earth unique? Is there life elsewhere?

Mars offers us the possibility of studying a planet close by and is also by far the most Earth-like planet in our solar system. It may look like a dusty desert today, but when Mars was a much younger planet its landscape and atmosphere were much gentler with a warmer and wetter climate similar to that in which life on Earth is supposed to have originated.

In such a climate there would have existed organic molecules, the Lego bricks from which all life is built. Up until now Mars rovers have been scrutinising the surface of the planet, but as its surface is constantly pummelled by radiation it is unlikely that we will find organic molecules there.

The next Mars rover, a European/Russian project called ExoMars, which UCL has played a leading role in developing, will be a whole new player in the field. It will be able to drill up to two meters beneath the planet’s surface and bring back completely fresh samples that could include organic molecules.

Understanding extra-terrestrial life is a job for now and for the future and Dartnell is conscious of the need to capture young people’s imaginations early on so that they can continue the research.

“I haven’t found a better way to get people, especially kids, interested in science than by talking about the scientific search for aliens,” said Dr Dartnell.

Next to talk was Professor Michele Dougherty from Imperial College London, who took the subject even further away from Earth – all the way to the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. She stressed how the UK is a major player in planetary science, building spacecraft and research instruments.

The Cassini spacecraft is at this very moment orbiting Saturn and collecting data for us to analyse back on Earth. Already, a heat source on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has been identified – a clear point of interest in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

A future European mission called JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) is set to be launched in 2022 and will get to Jupiter in 2030. JUICE will search for oceans underneath the surface of Jupiter’s moons – in particular Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system – and send back information on whether there could be life in the Jupiter system.

Professor John Zarnecki from the Open University brought up the commercial opportunities offered by space and planetary science. The Rosetta spacecraft is already chasing an asteroid trying to land, carrying on board a tiny yet highly sophisticated lab ready to collect samples of the metallic and rocky asteroid, a possible future target for mining precious minerals.

But asteroids and comets do not only provide commercial opportunities – they are also potential hazards if they collide with Earth, as the Chelyabinsk meteor taught us back in February. The fireball burned up in the atmosphere without causing fatalities, but huge amounts of broken glass and 1500 injured people on the ground were a sobering reminder of the effect a bigger asteroid could have should one hit a populated area.

A more catastrophic event will happen one day; it is only a question of when.

The Earth therefore badly needs a defence plan. Space science has already come up with several techniques to avoid this disaster, ranging from the “Bruce Willis” method – smashing the asteroid into smaller fragments using a nuclear bomb – to the gravity tractor where a spacecraft orbits near the asteroid and gently drags it away from Earth.

These projects might seem a bit fanciful to us today, but thinking back 20 years the concept of a small machine sitting in your car giving you directions would have seemed equally absurd.

Agreeing with Dr Dartnell, Dr Fabio Favata from the European Space Agency stressed the need for recruiting the best brains in the world and stressed how vital planetary and space science is for innovation and growth. Growth is essential to society and innovation is essential to growth. In order to spark innovation the best brains in the world must work together.

So how do we attract the best brains to work in Europe? The answer to this question is inspiration. The best scientists in the world are looking for the most interesting work opportunities and according to Dr Favata money really only plays a secondary role. Dr Phillip Lee MP added that it is necessary to be able to move people around, wishing for more open immigration laws, saying: “You certainly get my vote for more targeted immigration.”

Favata ended his talk on a high note by emphasising how space science offers a great source of inspiration, especially to young people.

“Science can actually be sexy!” said Dr Favata. “Think of how cool it is for a kid to watch the stars being born, or to watch a European astronaut walking in space, or a scientist searching for life in the universe.

For Dr Favata, it was watching Neil Armstrong setting his first foot on the moon that inspired him to get into the field and we need something just as revolutionary to capture today’s young minds.

Another crucial question raised by the meeting was how to better engage politicians in science policy and make them take notice. Professor Zarnecki brought up how the scientific community should take more responsibility.

“We should shoulder some of the blame,” he said, prompting Andrew Miller MP to implore all scientists: “You are working in a field because you are inspired. It is your responsibility as a scientist to do as much inspirational work as possible. Go to your schools. Go out in your community and inspire people.”

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