Dr. Jim Green of NASA visited Burlington, Iowa in late August to mark an important milestone: the 30th anniversary of relocating a telescope to the brand new John Witte Observatory. The event was significant to Green because he used that telescope while attending Burlington High School.
When Green was in school, the telescope sat atop the now-vacant Apollo High School. Green said he and fellow members of a high school astronomy club did everything they could to use the telescope in less than ideal circumstances.
“We got to the point where we just did the best we could,” said Green. “It’s on top of an old building, cars would go by, the place would shake. [The telescope] never tracked well. After a few minutes, the tracking was off.”
Green said he created devices that he could attach to the telescope that allowed him to take photographs of stars, planets, and the sun.
“I was driven to build things that would hold cameras and allow me to take a variety of pictures,” said Green. “I picked the sun and Mars. Every time that was available, they would be down there taking pictures, using equipment I built and that was exciting.”
Green is still photographing and studying celestial bodies today, only on a much grander scale as the Director of Planetary Science for NASA, stationed at NASA headquarters. During his trip back to Burlington, he spoke with TSPR’s Jason Parrott about how NASA handled the eclipse and about the potential for manned trips to Mars.
Green said NASA started planning for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse across the United States in early 2016. He said one of the top priorities was to conduct scientific experiments and research that could only be done during an eclipse, starting with photographing the lower corona of the sun.
“That’s actually very hard to do from satellites but because the moon exactly blocks off the surface of the sun at totality, we could actually make some measurements that we had not made before, so that was really critical,” said Green.
Green said NASA also launched 57 high-altitude balloons along the path of the eclipse, allowing them to reach a height of 100,000 feet. He said the eclipse blocked out some additional ultraviolet light and at 100,000 feet, the balloons were above the ozone.
“So it’s actually [that] the ultraviolet light and the temperature and pressure [during the eclipse} matches Mars perfectly,” said Green. “So I launched on 30 of the 57 balloons that were all along the path, a little strip of bacteria… It’s important for us to determine if life as we know it, and bacterial life as we know it, would survive on Mars.”
Green said the bacterium is now being studied to determine the effect of the Mars-like atmosphere during the solar eclipse.
He said NASA also used the event to promote science.
“There might be several thousand kids for which this event was so impressive to them that they want to learn more about the moon and then they want to learn more about the sun and then they want to do well in school and then they want to become scientists or engineers,” said Green. “Indeed, we want that to happen. We want to promote that.”
Green believes the solar eclipse will serve as a “gravity assist” for many people of all ages. He said in space, the gravity of a plant can propel an object forward and in this case, the solar eclipse could propel someone forward and help them form an interest in a particular area.
Green said NASA plans to examine how it handled the 2017 solar eclipse in preparation for the 2024 solar eclipse across the United States. He said, though, that he hopes the planning for the event does not get underway for a while, given the scope of preparations for this event.
Green said a reason for attempting to replicate the atmosphere on Mars during the eclipse is because NASA believes Mars is one of the only celestial bodies in our solar system where complex life could possibly survive.
“What we know now is, 3.5 billion years ago, Mars looked like the Earth,” said Green. “It had an enormous amount of water, it had a fabulous atmosphere, and it was about the same time that life started here on Earth. So if you can imagine, 3.5 billion years ago, two blue planets and there they were. We want to know if life sparked on Mars too.”
Green said the missions that launched satellites around Mars and the rovers scouring the planet’s surface are searching for habitable regions with certain elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur) that are critical to life. He said they are also looking for water.
Green said NASA will soon send a manned mission to Mars to increase the research capability on the planet.
“We have, we believe, the technology to put humans on Mars, to live work and return,” said Green. “It’s really not about the technology stopping us, it’s about the will to do it. The American public has been very generous and continues to fund us, and at this particular rate, we’re planning to have humans on Mars in the 2030 timeframe, in my lifetime.”
Green said the trip to Mars would take about 180 days when launched at a specific time of alignment for the two planets. He said humans would remain for 20-30 days before starting the roughly 220 day trip home, for a total excursion of about 14 months total.
“If you miss that window coming back, you would have to stay on Mars for more than an Earth year,” said Green.
Green said NASA is currently considering 50 sites on Mars for potential landing of a manned mission. He hopes to cut the list to 20 soon to ease the process of selecting a single location for such a mission.
“The site has got to have resources that we can use,” said Green. “We want to be able to have access to water. Mars actually has an enormous amount of water trapped in ice and we believe in underground aquifers and it is a matter of being in the right place. Mars also has all kinds of resources. Martian dust is a great material to bring in and use in your 3-D printers and make anything you want, the way we do things these days. We are going to live off the land as much as we can.”
Green said NASA will not move from spot to spot with manned missions to Mars. He said once the site is selected, humans will get quite familiar with it with repeated trips for years to come.