Exploring the Solar System at Honors Colloquium

Science blogger, planetary exploration advocate Emily Lakdawalla to speak Oct. 10 at URI

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Emily Lakdawalla Photo
Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society

Solar system exploration advocate Emily Lakdawalla will present a lecture titled “The Golden Age of Solar System Exploration” on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. as part of this year’s Honors Colloquium at the University of Rhode Island. The lecture will be held at Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road, Kingston.

An award-winning science communicator and educator, Lakdawalla is senior editor with The Planetary Society based in Pasadena, Calif. Since 2001, she has written about the active and past scientific missions into the solar system for The Planetary Society’s website, planetary.org, and helped the public to become active participants in space exploration.

These experiences led to her first book, titled The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job, that is due out from Springer-Praxis in 2018. A second book, Curiosity and Its Science Mission: A Mars Rover Goes to Work, will follow in 2019.

On July 12, 2014, she was honored by the International Astronomical Union when it formally named Asteroid 274860  “Emilylakdawalla.”

Lakdawalla earned her bachelor’s degree in geology from Amherst College and a master’s degree in planetary geology from Brown University.

“It is a true pleasure to host such a widely known speaker, with such extensive knowledge regarding planetary sciences and exploration, as part of the Honors Colloquium,” said Dawn Cardace, a colloquium coordinator and associate professor of geosciences in the College of Environment and Life Sciences. “Whether it’s blog posts or more formal talks, I have been regularly impressed by her contributions. This will be a one-of-a-kind seminar.”

In advance of her presentation, URI Communications and Marketing reached out to Lakdawalla for a preview of her talk.

What sparked your interest in solar system exploration?

I’ve always been interested in science in general –– I never wanted to specialize. I recall loving a book of Voyager photos from Jupiter and Saturn, enjoying all of the different names and faces of their moons. But I was a huge dinosaur fan as well. As a freshman in college, I took the introductory geology course and found a science that incorporated biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as history and art, and I fell in love. It was in 1997, while I was teaching fifth and sixth grade science, that it occurred to me to wonder whether you could study geology on other planets. I went to Brown University to do that, and have been a planetary scientist ever since.

In your opinion, are we currently in the Golden Age of Solar System exploration or has it passed?

With more than 20 spacecraft actively exploring the solar system, we are definitely in a Golden Age, but we’re in a late stage. We’ve lost a couple of our most distant, greatest missions in the last year (Rosetta and Cassini). Our reach is beginning to contract as we mostly study Mars and near-Earth asteroids now, with only a few spacecraft at other places. The good news is that there are many new participants in deep space exploration, countries like China and India, and private entities beginning to set their sights beyond Earth. They can’t currently go farther than Mars, but that will change. I’m hoping that we’ll see NASA return to Venus and to the giant planets beyond Jupiter in my lifetime.

Should we be doing more human flights, or more in general, to explore outer space?

I think it’s interesting to put humans in space –– there isn’t yet a machine substitute for human ingenuity and flexible thinking –– but humans bring challenges and expense, and huge operational inefficiency. I’m excited to see the ways in which technology will permit humans and robots to work together in space exploration in the future. The most efficient thing will always be to put machine bodies in the extreme environments, and take advantage of human minds to run them, keeping the human bodies in safer, more stable environments. Robotic exploration actually is human exploration when you look at it that way –– every robot on Mars is an avatar for hundreds of scientists and engineers who stay comfortably on Earth. There are a lot of improvements to be made in the efficiency of robotic operations. We can also explore teleoperation of robots on the surface by humans in an orbiting station. It’s exciting to think about walking Mars in a space suit, with boots crunching the dust, but it’ll be far more efficient to experience Mars through a robot body, using its cameras as our eyes, feeling it through robot appendages and wheels.

Do you think a human trip to Mars is possible in our lifetime? If so, how?

The Planetary Society has a blueprint for an achievable next step in human exploration of Mars. It is certainly possible, the question is always whether we as a society are willing to pay what it will cost!

What do you hope people who attend your lecture take from it?

I hope that people find out about the exciting, international robotic missions exploring all over our solar system. I hope they learn about the questions guiding solar system exploration and how many unanswered questions there are. Most of these questions trace back to fundamental ones: Are we the only life in the universe? How did we get here? And I hope they support the development and launching of more robotic missions to answer these fundamental questions!


Learn more about Emily Lakdawalla.

Olivia Ross, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations major, wrote this press release.

Honors Colloquium: “Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything,” addresses such questions as “Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? How did intelligent, rational beings arise? And from such humble beginnings, how did we develop a mind that can ask these big questions? Now in its 54th year, the colloquium is the University’s premier public lecture series, offering lectures on most Tuesday evenings through Dec. 5.

Sponsors: Honors Program • URI Office of the President  • URI Office of the Provost  • 125th Anniversary Steering Committee • URI Foundation • The Mark and Donna Ross Honors Colloquium Humanities Endowment  • The Thomas Silvia and Shannon Chandley Honors Colloquium Endowment  • URI College of Arts & Sciences  • URI College of Pharmacy  • URI John Hazen White Sr. Center for Ethics and Public Service  • URI Gender and Women’s Studies Program  • URI Office of Community, Equity and Diversity  • URI College of Engineering  •  URI College of the Environment and  Life Sciences  •  URI College of Health Sciences  •  URI College of Business Administration  •  URI College of Nursing  •  URI Division of Student Affairs  •  URI Department of Communications and Marketing  •  URI Department of Publications and Creative Services  •  URI ITS Instructional Technology and Media Services  •  URI Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies • George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience.