The major exciting thing for me now in the last two or three years is inner solar system and the bombardment history of the planets. Now that we have strengthened the idea that there was indeed a cataclysmic bombardment, there are still many unanswered questions about it. What exactly was the mechanism that made the asteroids turn into projectiles at that time? It’s very exciting to be able to probe the early history of the Earth and inner planets, and one of the things that is especially interesting to me about it is that any mechanism that explains the late heavy bombardment is going to have something to do with what was going on in the outer solar system too.
As it turns out, to launch the asteroids out of the asteroid belt and into the inner solar system, you likely have to use the gravity of the big planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. That means that what was going on in the outer solar system had a profound effect on what happened in the inner solar system, including the Earth.
Just being able to connect such diverse areas—to be able to connect what is essentially planetary geology with orbital dynamics, and the terrestrial planets with the outer giant planets’ history—I think this lab is probably one of the very few places in the world where something like that could happen, because of our diverse range of researchers.
There are a lot of meteorite dealers that show up at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. I started going to that, and I met Marvin Killgore, who was at the time a meteorite dealer. He’s one of the rare meteorite dealers that was very interested in meteorite science and was preserving these at his expense—basically not selling all his best stuff, so he could keep it and do research on it and provide it to scientists for research.
We realized that the commercial meteorite world was in a crazy state right now, with millions of dollars being traded in meteorites, and meteorites being harvested at very rapid time-scales compared to the rate at which they fall on Earth. This was kind of a bonanza, similar to a Gold Rush period in the 1800s, and it was going to die out like the Gold Rush did too. All the good meteorites were going to be recovered, and if we didn’t do something to preserve them, there’d be nothing left for future generations to work on.
We decided to try to create this Southwest Meteorite Center, and we hired Marvin at the University of Arizona. He still works for us. We’ve been going for about a year now, with pretty good success. We have some potentially very large donors interested in contributing, which is really what we need in order make this thing a long-lasting success. It’s kind of a save the world crusade that we’re on: Save the meteorites.
I am involved in two missions that are under development. One is the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the successor to Hubble. I also recently got selected as part of a team to build a mission to make measurements of Jupiter, called Juno, which will really focus on the structure and composition of Jupiter. That should launch in 2011. I’m involved in studies of future missions to Titan, particularly balloon missions.
The field is exciting; the questions have become sharper and deeper. There are a lot of mysteries in the solar system and beyond to understand. I hope I live long enough and the program prospers enough both to find planets like the Earth around other stars and to get this darn balloon to Titan, so we can get a camera all over the surface at close range and really see what’s going on. If those two things can happen, I’ll be tickled pink. If they don’t, it still has been a great ride.