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Lunar and Planetary Science Conference Takes Us to Pluto and Beyond

By: , Posted on: March 18, 2016

space cloud

The 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) will take place next week, March 21-25 in The Woodlands, Texas; only about 60 miles from the NASA Space Center in Houston. Sponsored and coordinated by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), NASA, and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), LPSC brings together international scientists from a variety of disciplines including geophysics, geology, astronomy, and geochemistry, among others. The conference will address topics ranging from recent missions to the moon, Mars, and Pluto (and others) to space weather and asteroid redirection. Special sessions will focus on missions to dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, as well as on NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division Facilities.

The New Horizons mission to the Kuiper Belt made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 and researchers continue to make discoveries about surface properties, geology, interior makeup, and atmospheres of planetary bodies in the outer solar system based on the information they’ve received from the mission. The team working on the Dawn mission to Ceres and the giant asteroid Vesta recently received the National Aeronautic Association Robert J. Collier Trophy, which is an annual award presented “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year”. The information received from this mission will help researchers to better understand the makeup of the early solar system, and the special session will cover results from the first three orbit phases of the mission as well as initial results from its current lowest-altitude orbit.

As a representative of Elsevier’s Space and Planetary Science program, I am excited to attend the conference and better understand the important topics at the forefront of researchers’ minds in the field. If you are attending the conference and would like to meet to chat about your research or even just say hello, tweet me @marisa_kathryn. Meanwhile, enjoy this excerpt from the Encyclopedia of the Solar System, edited by Tilman Spohn, Doris Breuer, and Torrence Johnson.

The following excerpt is taken from the chapter The Origin of the Solar System by John E. Chambers and Alex N. Halliday:

Encylopedia of the Solar System

The origin of the solar system has long been a fascinating subject posing difficult questions of deep significance. It takes one to the heart of the question of our origins, of how we came to be here and why our surroundings look the way they do. Unfortunately, we currently lack a self-consistent model for the origin of the solar system and other planetary systems. The early stages of planet formation are obscure and we have only a modest understanding of how much the orbits of planets change during and after their formation. At present, we cannot say whether terrestrial planets similar to the Earth are commonplace or highly unusual. Nor do we understand where the water came from that makes our planet habitable.

In the face of such uncertainty, one might ask whether we will ever understand how planetary systems form. In fact, the last 10 years have seen rapid progress in almost every area of planetary science, and our understanding of the origin of the solar system and other planetary systems has improved greatly as a result. Planetary science today is as exciting as it has been at any time since the Apollo landings on the Moon, and the coming decade looks set to continue this trend.

Some key recent developments are

  1. Two decades ago, the first planet orbiting another Sun-like star was discovered. Since then, hundreds of new planets have been discovered using ground-based telescopes, and several thousand planetary candidates have been identified by the space-based Kepler mission. Most of the first planets to be found appear to be gas giants similar to Jupiter and Saturn. Recently, many smaller planets have been found, and at least some of these may be akin to terrestrial planets like Earth.
  1. In the last 10 years there have been a number of highly successful space missions to other bodies in the solar system, including Mercury, Mars, and several asteroids and comets, as well as the ongoing Cassini mission to Saturn. Information and images returned from these missions have transformed our view of these objects, while spacecraft have recently obtained samples of an asteroid, a comet, and particles from the solar wind. All this information is greatly enhancing our understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system.
  1. The discovery that one can physically separate and analyze stardust—presolar grains that can be extracted from meteorites and that formed in the envelopes of other stars, has meant that scientists can for the first time test decades of theory on how stars work. The parallel development of methods for extracting isotopic information at the submicron scale has opened up a new window to the information stored in such grains.
  1. The development of multiple collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry has made it possible to use new isotopic systems for determining the mechanisms and timescales for the growth of bodies early in the solar system.
  1. Our theoretical understanding of planet formation has advanced substantially in several areas, including new models for the rapid growth of giant planets, a better understanding of the physical and chemical evolution of protoplanetary disks, and the growing realization of the ways in which planets can migrate substantially during and after their formation.
  1. Powerful new computer codes and equations of state have been developed recently, which make it possible to make realistic, high-resolution simulations of collisions between planet-sized bodies. These developments are greatly improving the realism of models for planetary growth, and may offer the solution to some long-standing puzzles about the origin of Mercury, the Moon, and asteroids.

Today, the formation of the solar system is being studied using three complementary approaches.

  • Astronomical observations of protoplanetary disks around young stars are providing valuable information about probable conditions during the early history of the solar system and the timescales involved in planet formation. The discovery of new planets orbiting other stars is adding to the astonishing diversity of possible planetary systems, and providing additional tests for theories of how planetary systems form.
  • Physical, chemical, and isotopic analysis of meteorites and samples returned by space missions is generating important information about the formation and evolution of objects in the solar system and their constituent materials. This field of cosmochemistry has taken off in several important new directions in recent years, including the determination of timescales involved in the formation of the terrestrial planets and asteroids, and constraints on the origin of the materials that make up the Solar System.
  • Theoretical calculations and numerical simulations are being used to examine every stage in the formation of the solar system. These provide valuable insights into the complex interplay of physical and chemical processes involved, and help to fill in some of the gaps when astronomical and cosmochemical data are unavailable.

In this chapter we will describe what we currently know about how the solar system formed, and highlight some of the main areas of uncertainty that await future discoveries. Read more here.

Interested in learning more about publishing with Elsevier? Click here to connect with Earth and Environmental Science Acquisitions Editor, Marisa LaFleur.

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