On the horizon
The Apollo moon rocks that were were brought back to Earth have “evolved our understanding of how the moon formed,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. These rocks “vanquished” the idea that the moon originally formed as a cold assemblage of rocks and “foo foo dust,” she said.
Instead, after carefully analyzing samples from Apollo 11 and other missions, scientists at MIT and elsewhere have found that the moon was a dynamic body, with a surface that at one time was entirely molten, and a metallic core, or “dynamo,” powering an early, lunar magnetic field. Even more provocative was the finding that the moon was not in fact “bone-dry,” but actually harbored water — an idea that Zuber said was virtually unpublishable until an MIT graduate reported evidence of water in Apollo samples, after which the floodgates opened in support of the idea.
To consider the next 50 years of space exploration, the MIT symposium featured a panel of faculty members — Paulo Lozano, Danielle Wood, Richard Binzel, and Sara Seager — who highlighted, respectively, the development of tiny thrusters to power miniature spacecraft; an effort to enable wider access to microgravity missions; an MIT student-designed mission (REXIS) that is currently analyzing the near-Earth asteroid Bennu; and TESS and ASTERIA, satellite missions that are currently in orbit, looking for planets and possibly, life, outside our solar system.
Industry leaders also weighed in on the growing commercialization of space exploration, in a panel, moderated by Olivier de Weck, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems, featuring MIT alums who currently head major aerospace companies.
Keoki Jackson, chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin, noted the pervasiveness of space-based technologies, such as GPS-dependent apps for everything from weather and news, to Uber.
“[Commercial enterprises] have made space a taken-for-granted part of life,” said Jackson, noting later in the panel that in 2015, 1 billion GPS devices had been sold around the world. “This shows you what can happen exponentially when you come up with something truly enabling.”
“The challenge we face is talent, and in particular, diversity,” said John Langford, CEO and founder of Aurora Flight Sciences, who noted the panel’s all-male participants as an example. “It’s an industry-wide challenge. We’re working to reform ourselves, as we move from the brigade-type technologies that we grew up with, to incorporating technologies such as computer technology and artificial intelligence.”