>Dr. Margaret S. Race
>Space Exploration and Discovery -- Where are we Headed?
>Dr. Margaret S. Race is an ecologist currently working with NASA
>through the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA. Her current work
>focuses on planetary protection, environmental impact analyses,
>legal and policy issues, and risk communication related to solar
>system exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life. She was
>an organizer and editor of a series of international workshops that
>developed containment and planetary protection protocols for NASA's
>upcoming Mars Sample Return missions. She is currently a member
>of a AAAS-NASA workgroup analyzing the societal and ethical
>dimensions of Astrobiology, and is also involved in a team-taught
>course on Planetary Protection for working space professionals.
>Dr. Race will analyze current and future missions and research plans
>in the context of NASA's Astrobiology objectives, and discuss the
>ethical implications and technological challenges associated with
>Astrobiology research and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Dr. Race began her talk by showing us some neat pictures that had just been beamed back from Mars by the current pair of rovers that are exploring the planet. She urged us to visit the NASA websites where they (and many others) can be seen.
She explained that since the key ingredients for life as we know it are liquid water, a source of energy (sunlight), and a number of chemical ingredients that are widely available. Since the key ingredient we don't know the availability of on Mars is liquid water, the rovers have lots of ways to look for evidence it was there.
The current Mars rover is about twice as tall as the first one, and has dramatically more ability to explore and extract information from its environment. She showed us a chart comparing them, and also showing us the one they hope to send up a decade from now. That one will be so heavy that it won't be possible to parachute it in, but will have to land it using retro rockets. Dr. Race said it would be "much more competent".
Then Dr. Race explained that there are four ways to look for life beyond our planet. The most far looking is SETI, which looks for radio signals broadcast by distant civilizations. The next way is to look for evidence of planets like ours around other stars. Apparently these can be detected by looking at the "wobble" they give the paths of the stars they orbit around. So far a few hundred of these have been found. The third way is to go there and hunt for it, as we are doing now on Mars. The other way is to try and recreate the original conditions in a lab and see what happens.
Dr. Race gave us a bit of background on the ethics of exploration. She explained that there are international treaties that prohibit us from contaminating other planets, and also prohibit the importing of possible dangerous organisms from outer space. As an example of the wrong way to do it, she reminded us of our own history, where many people had been killed by diseases that had been unknown to them which had crossed oceans with explorers.
During Q&A she explained that transporting humans to Mars is a major technological and logistical feat. For one thing they have to be willing to spend at least three years going each way. This means they need lots of food and remarkable ability to get along. Another problem with sending people up there is that they are likely to violate that international treaty about not spreading our diseases beyond our planet.