OPAG: the Outer Planetary Assessment Group meeting
OPAG was a very different experience from my past conference experiences. The focus on current and potential missions and the the technicalities that go along with them, was very interesting to see. There were several different projects that I’ve heard about that it really helped me understand there standing.
Take LUVOIR (the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor) . Some have gone so far as to call it the successor to Hubble (GASP!). This is something Britney has mentioned and discussed with her group at GA Tech several times. I never quite understood where that stood. Turns out its a mission concept in the making with an estimated 2030 launch., and while it isn’t the only option, I think it has a really good chance of succeeding. Usually, OPAG is about missions involve the outer planets. LUVOIR is more of an astronomical project, but it’s unique because the designers recognize, and are taking full advantage of the fact, that it has a wide array of applications in planetary science.
Its aperture will be between 8 and 16 m, compared to Hubbles 2.4 m (JWST 6.5 m). Also unlike Hubble, it will be serviceable and up-gradable for decades. At 1000 AU, the distance of the hypothesized 9th planet, Hubble would see it as a complete blur. LUVOIR wouldn’t see it in full detail, but would see it about as well as Hubble saw plut (qualitatively speakiing). Remember Pluto is ~30 AU. It could make out Earth and Venus and Jupiter size planets of systems 13 parsecs away. Could make out the surfaces of IO and Europa, enough to track changes, and it could distinguish the heart on Pluto.
The plan is to come after JWST, but it also sees farther and with a wider range of view (spectraly) than the JWST. It has its problems and limitation but compared to the other missions being proposed, I think it’s the best being proposed. There is a far infrared, an x-ray, and an exoplanet observer. I think LUVOIR is best because offers the wides range of opportunities. It will provide insight into Astrophysics, Cosmic origins, our solar system, and exoplanets.
Other news involved an update on The Europa Clipper. This wasn’t an introduction but more of an update, so it was more difficult for me to follow along. It was largely about refining the instruments, their capabilities, and the overall plan. The overarching synergetic sciences were as follows.
- Gravity though doppler measurements
- Magnetometry and plasma to confirm ocean and ice thickness
- Infrared to understand composition and compounds on surface (especially to find organics)
- Could help pave the way for future lander missions
- RADAR to find subsurface waster (melt lens?)
- Ultraviolet to detect vapors escaping surface
- Gas and dust spec to understand what is escaping
- and more!
Dragon Fly and potential New Frontiers Missions
There was a discussion of a few ideas involving a new New Frontiers Mission. There was an idea for the Enceladus Life finder (ELF). IT would investigate Enceladus’s ~100 jets, which is modulated by diurnal tidal flexing and is what feeds the E ring. It would search for composition (organic rich molecules sourced from the ocean) and do in situ detection of biomarkers (with a cosmic dust analyzer and NMS). It would study both gas and grains with an intent to undestand the evolution of volatiles (looking for finer scaled masses the INMS hasn’t been able to find, understanding which have reacted with water, and are they effected by hydrothermal vents), habitability (temp, redox energ, oxidation state, pH, etc.), and life (amino acides, membrane molecules, and isotopic trends) in the regions.
A long shot that was proposed more as a 2050 vision was the Pluto Orbiter. They focused less on the logistics and more on the potential science. Although, I thought it was premature.
Finally, the big reveal was the Dragon Fly Titan lander. They discuss it in a LPSC abstract if you’d like to read more about it. The true magic behind it is that it makes use of Titan’s thick atmosphere. It would be very similar to Mars missions, except it would use a helicopter like design to move between sites, unlike Mars landers and rovers ever could. The main objective is to understand the organic and methanogic cycle on Titan and how that relates to life. It seeks to understand the prebiotic chemistry and habitability by studying the complex organic material. Its an amazing laboratory because its an Earth like system with a methane cycle instead of water. We might find hydrocarbon based life, entirely different from our own. Think of all we could learn from this one lander as we can fly to specific regions with diverse surface materials. Other flight options include a hot air balloon, an airplane, etc. The challenge is to get a capable mission suit to high priority sites. The Dragonfly rotorcraft lander could travel to settings 10s to 100s km apart all while taking aerial imagery and atmospheric profiles.
The potential Europa Lander
As a concept, I think it’s a really cool idea. They released a nearly 300 page report (source of images provided). I know Catherine has serious reservations regarding this, and for good reason. All the same, I can’t escape the fondness I have for it or Europa. Catherine put the most recent cost estimate at $4B. A similar study in 2012 gave an estimate by an independent estimate at $3B. Whatever it may be, I think we can agree it is probably too high. It would overshadow other missions and allocate too many funds to this one task. That being said, the presenter (I think Kevin Hand) had a few things to say about it. One, clipper is in the works and would aid in selecting a site in the future, but more importantly, he says, we need to develop a mission capable of doing this type of science with limited information. As we venture further and further out, it will become increasingly difficult to do reconnaissance of the bodies we visit. It is advantageous to develop a system capable of handling and reacting to the given terrain. Now, I am not here to advocate for the Europa lander, but it’s big news in planetary science. In fact, they’re aiming for a 2024 timeline.
Even if you don’t like the idea, the science is still pretty awesome, and is applicable to other missions as well. The primary goal is searching for bio-signatures, then understanding habitability, then giving context by defining surface properties and planetary dynamics.
There is so much that can be said about this mission and the science. I think it’s worth exploring the report more if only to understand the type of science they would do and specifically how they might search for life. It is an amazing (and well illustrated) look at such a complex world and how we might come to understand it.
Update on research
I spoke to Zibi. We made progress on the code but still got an error. I am going to try it again with Michael Bland’s files, but in the mean time Zibi will try to understand the issue we are getting. After I explore Michael’s code I am going to delve more into the literature and develop the range of test cases we want to implement, with a plan to present these at Titan through Time.