Ground-Based Discoveries

Our Future in Space: Ground-Based Discoveries

Steve Larson

I think LPL’s strength is that, in spite of all the budget cuts and everything, it’s been very active in flight projects, which is really the bread-and-butter of planetary sciences these days. But ground-based observations even to this day are a major driver to identifying experiments and identifying targets for flight projects. I mean, the Catalina Sky Survey discovered 67,000 new asteroids. This provides opportunities for flybys and whatnot. It feeds back to flight projects, and it suggests things to look at or to study over time, which you can’t do very well from spacecraft.

The foundation for a lot of planetary science starts on the ground. The Kuiper Belt was discovered from the ground. That’s a whole new realm of the solar system. It certainly represents the largest volume of the solar system, and may be a very large percentage of the mass.

So there are always going to be discoveries from the ground that require continuing observations that you can’t get from space. There has to be healthy balance. LPL has, for the most part, been out of the telescope business. Our project is the one of the last, along with Spacewatch, to utilize telescopes. I’m hoping that won’t end soon.

There’s also talk about expanding it to much smaller sizes which requires new telescopes, new techniques, and all that. So that may happen, so hopefully LPL will continue having their hands in that effort. Not just participation, but continued management of the spaceflight projects will keep LPL at the forefront for a long time.

Renu Malhotra

I would like to see more ground-based planetary astronomy. I think ground-based is very critical to planetary science, because missions are few and far between, and you get to touch only one part of the elephant that way. Ground-based planetary astronomy is very critical, and it’s actually somewhat of a shame that the lab has moved away from that area. Possibly that’s just part of the natural evolution. Some of that work is now going on in Steward, but for the future I would definitely like to see the lab encourage ground-based planetary astronomy. 

I would also like to see the lab support the theory more. It’s not that we need a lot of theorists, but we do need a small, critical mass to provide interpretation of all the empirical things we learn. Theorists provide ideas and interpretation. We can’t do without that, otherwise we’re simply “collecting bricks and not building a house.”

Timothy Swindle

I think LPL’s in a pretty good spot, in terms of being heavily involved in spacecraft and having some people doing very top-notch science. The problem is you can’t stay on top by staying in the same place. I don’t know exactly where I’d like to see it go, but I think that will be determined by the next round of young hires. I don’t care so much exactly what those people are doing as much as that they’re good people. There are some directions that I think are kind of obvious, like planets around other stars, the Kuiper Belt, the outer part of the solar system. It’d be nice to have some people who are really at the forefront.

Maybe it’s going back to the future, but LPL started as a very telescope-orientated place, and now it’s completely un-telescope-orientated place, and I’d like to see a little bit of that come back, because there’s now some exciting telescope stuff. I think you could argue that in the eighties and nineties, there really wasn’t, but now with planets around other stars I think there is again.