Don't Worry About U.S. Space Leadership

No offense to Vice President Pence -- but have you seen these new images from Jupiter?

Pretty cool.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt

In the realm of space exploration, Americans may have not only separated into bubbles but split into entire parallel universes. Last week, in one universe, Vice President Michael Pence vows to regain America’s lost leadership in space. In the other, NASA demonstrates its continued leadership by announcing that the spacecraft Juno is giving the world its first close-up view of Jupiter’s iconic red spot. Not that U.S. leadership was the main point of this exercise. The scientists are excited to learn about this wonder of the universe -- a swirling storm bigger than our entire planet. 

In one universe, the Trump administration is going to fix what ails American space exploration. “For nearly 25 years, government’s commitment seems to have not matched the spirit of the American people,” Pence told an audience at the Kennedy Space Center on July 6. In the other universe, Americans and other interested parties from around the world are so thrilled with the Juno mission that they are downloading the raw data from NASA and turning it into images, which range from realistic visualizations to artistic renderings.

Jupiter's red spot is weirdly persistent, considering that earthly storms come and go in a matter of days. As Caltech planetary scientist Andrew Ingersoll describes it, the spot is like a ball bearing rotating between two opposing jet streams. It has been there since the time people were first able to view the face of our solar system’s largest planet with telescopes in the late 1600s, he said. For reasons that aren’t well understood, the spot has suddenly started shrinking. It was three times the size of Earth when the spacecraft Voyager flew by in the 1970s, but now it’s only 1.4 times the size of our planet.

Juno skimmed by the storm’s cloud tops at a tenth the distance of Voyager and other previous spacecraft, and its instruments allowed the first view beneath the surface of those clouds. Ingersoll said it should be able to see whether the spot has deep roots - meaning that the storm might extend downwards more than 100 miles. They may also get clues to another mystery -- why the spot is red.

The craft arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, and it has already started giving scientists a view below the cloud tops. They expected all the action to be at the top, with something more uniform and bland beneath, said principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute. Instead, they’ve encountered a surprising amount of structure and action beneath the surface -- something different everywhere they peer.

If any other country had launched such a successful mission, politicians would be out of their minds not to mention it in a major speech on space exploration. And this is no isolated success. The team guiding the Cassini spacecraft is giving us a grand finale this summer of an inspiring tour of Saturn’s rings and moons. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is still showing us views of otherwise invisible gases bursting from supernova explosions or swirling into supermassive black holes. The Kepler satellite has revealed the presence of thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and the Hubble telescope continues to change the way we understand the origin and nature of our universe.

In Pence’s universe, none if this is apparently worth mentioning. The red spot is pretty, but you can’t build a golf course on it. Pence’s speech suggested that real space exploration requires astronauts. “Our nation will return to the moon and put American boots on the face of Mars,” he said, painting a strangely militaristic image.

Why I asked a handful of space scientists what they thought of Pence’s concern about U.S. leadership -- whether we’d lost it and whether it would matter if we did. They all said essentially the same thing -- that our leadership is only reinforced by the fact that Europe, China, Japan and India are starting to explore the solar system. While Pence waxed visionary about sending astronauts “to places our children’s children can only imagine,” Americans have sent people farther into space than any other nation, and now play a leading role in the International Space Station.

Mars has been beckoning for decades, and many administrations before Trump’s have made noise about sending people. Scientists haven’t completely ruled out the possibility that simple life started on Mars and may survive still under the surface. Astronaut-scientists might be able to do the drilling and analysis to finally get an answer. But would it be so bad if the boots of those scientists weren’t all American?

In terms of sheer distance, we can’t compete with our robots. They acquire new superpowers every year, while the American body hasn’t changed, except, on average, to get fatter. Besides, people can dream big about robotic missions. “I would to see a probe in orbit around Pluto, a submarine exploration of Europa’s ocean, or sailing the methane seas of Titan,” said astronomer Tod Lauer of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona.

Lauer said he understands the desire to walk around on other worlds. In the 1960s, he said, he remembers being 11, staring at a model of the moon, when a teacher asked him if he’d like to go there someday. He did want to go to the moon, he said, and back then it seemed a realistic enough goal. “None of the really giant dreams from then came true,” he said, “and I still emotionally miss that alternate future.”

But the actual 21st century has not been so bad. Lauer said he was one of the first people to see close-ups of the surface of Pluto by analyzing data from the New Horizons mission and turning it into images. Maybe it’s good that Trump and his people have shown no interest in these sorts of missions. Otherwise they might start naming things after themselves.

This week, citizen scientists are picking up the raw data from Juno’s July 10 flyby and creating the first close-ups of the red spot. The first person to see each new part of Juno’s itinerary doesn’t have to be an astronaut. It could be any school kid or science enthusiast from any country. It could be you.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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