Science

“There are high chances that the conditions necessary for life outside our galaxy will exist”

Adriana Ocampo, head of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, recalls that her curiosity for science has always been present in her life. When she was a child she would go up on the roof with her dog to see what they could see in the sky. That curiosity continued to grow and as soon as he contemplated the arrival of the human being to the Moon in 1969 it was clear that he wanted to be part of the team that had managed to visit that place. When he was young, Ocampo (66 years, Barranquilla, Colombia) emigrated to the United States, and the first thing he did when he got on the plane was ask where NASA was. Shortly after arriving, she began volunteering there and that place would soon become what she defines as her second home. Since that first contact he has not stopped working on numerous projects and has been responsible for some very relevant, such as New Horizons , mission that explored Pluto and its moons, and Juno , that analyzes Jupiter.

The researcher of Asturian origin recently visited Madrid, invited by the US Embassy, ​​to present the mission Lucy , which starts the next 16 October. The project will analyze a main belt asteroid, located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, and seven Trojans, bodies that follow or lead Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun. The duration of this great unmanned trip is calculated in 12 years, and it includes a plaque with inspiring messages from poets and artists, as a time capsule for “the next humans”, explains the researcher. The Asturias Institute of Space Sciences and Technologies (ICTEA) has played an essential role in this mission, which has been in charge of storing 22 telescopes with which it is expected to observe an unprecedented astronomical event: a star will face today with one of the mission Trojans ( Polymele ) and the shadow it produces will be reflected in Spain. With these instruments they will be able to determine the size of the body and thus help with the project.

Question. What do you expect to know with this mission?

Answer. We want to know how the giant planets were formed. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are thought to have migrated on their trajectory, that where we find them orbiting today is not where they originally formed. We want to understand how that happened, how their orbits have changed. Trojan asteroids are the remnants of that formation process. We think that perhaps studying Trojan asteroids is like having x-rays and we are going to be able to see the nucleus of the giant planets, because they are the vestiges of the planetary formation of the Solar System.

“Studying the correlation of the asteroid family we are going to decipher the history of the Solar System”

P. Asteroids have been studied before. Why is it so important to study Trojan asteroids in particular?

A. Trojan asteroids are not only going to help us determine the correlation between the Kuiper belt and other objects and asteroids, a question that we have been observing since 2015. It will also help us in the correlation with the chronology.

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  • “Asteroids can help answer the great question of how life came about ”

Trojan asteroids on its surface are thought to they have been transformed by the water molecule. With the mission Lucy we want to identify the composition of the soil of these asteroids, to know if they have been rehydrated and how they have been transformed. In addition, we will look at the diversity of the composition that we can find and the organic material that we know that some of these Trojan asteroids have. For life to occur as we know it, we need three key ingredients: liquid water, organic material and an energy source, which in the case of the Solar System is the Sun. If these asteroids contain organic material and material that has been hydrated by the water molecule, can help us to decipher what life could be like outside our planet. Studying that correlation of all these asteroid families we are going to really decipher the history of our Solar System, especially the planetary history.

P. When will the first data begin to be known?

R. The mission Lucy has a trajectory that we call opportunistic, that is, we are going to use a single spacecraft to, with the same trajectory, visit eight worlds. The first one we’re going to go to in 2025 is an asteroid called Donaldjohanson . Donald Johanson is the one who discovered the Lucy fossil, which is why the mission bears this name. Just as Lucy has taught us a lot about our origins as a species, we hope that the mission Lucy will also teach us about our planetary origins.

P. So in four years, when that asteroid is reached, that is when the first data will begin to be obtained.

R. That’s how it is. The extraordinary thing about this opportunistic trajectory is that it will pass through the Earth three times, using the gravitational field of our planet to accelerate it and redirect it to fly over the Trojan asteroids. That way less fuel is used.

P. A part of the project has been developed during the pandemic. What was it like working on a space mission in the middle of such an exceptional situation?

R. The mission Lucy broke all records. It is the only one that has been built under a pandemic. At NASA we are used to having very big challenges, everything we do is for the first time. But, at the same time, building in a pandemic required developing new methodologies. There was something we called 6 – 15, which was our mantra: be at six feet , for no more than 15 minutes. Usually one thinks that it will take much longer to build the ship – under these circumstances – but we were under the pressure of the calendar. The team did something extraordinary: the construction of the spacecraft that would have taken nine months was done in six and a half months. The methodologies used were so effective that we are going to do what is called lessons learned [lecciones aprendidas]: what did we learn from this so that the Lucy showed it to other missions that are under construction. Like, for example, Psyche , which is going to be a metallic world or Europa Clipper , which is going to explore one of Jupiter’s moons that is also thought to have an ocean, organic material, liquid water, etc.

“’New Horizons’ has been the mission that has changed the thinking about the Solar System”

P. What has been the recent mission that has changed the vision of the Solar System the most?

R. From each mission we learn so much that we always come up with more questions than answers. But I think recently the New Horizons mission has been extraordinary. This mission went to a place never before explored, to the borderlines of the Solar System, where it explored Pluto and its moons. It has really changed the perspective of our Solar System. It’s what made us focus on that we are more than planets, and we have all these other objects in our Solar System that make us richer and more complex. Therefore, I think that New Horizons , in recent times, has been the mission that has completely changed what we think of the Solar System.

P. You were responsible for this mission, what memories do you have of it?

R. It was a long-term mission, nine and a half years, where we had great challenges. But the extraordinary thing is that we had only one chance: either we got it right or we failed altogether. The pressure was a lot. The team was very diverse and many women took leadership. Many people from the Lucy team also worked on the New Horizons project. Sometimes you think how is it that NASA has been so successful, relatively? Everything has to do with the team, with the people, and that thirst to provide knowledge.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we might find a past life fence with ‘Perseverance'”

P. Throughout history planets, the Moon, asteroids and now the Trojans have been explored. Do you think it is possible, if you continue researching like this, that life outside the Earth is found?

A. The question of whether we are alone in the universe is part of NASA’s mission. More than 5 have already been discovered. 000 exoplanets, planets that are orbiting a star. That’s within our galaxy, and we know that there are billions of galaxies in the universe. The chances are high that the conditions that gave rise to life, as we know it, have been replicated. Statistically they are potentially high. Now we have been learning what life niches are and we have found those conditions even within our Solar System. With Perseverance , which is capturing on Mars and extracting those samples that are going to be returned to Earth, I wouldn’t be surprised if we might find a fossil there, a fence of past life. I would not be surprised if water could be found on the mission to Europe. I think we are in the golden age of space exploration and we are really very fortunate to be living in it because we are going to be surprised with what we have been exploring with these space missions. The next generations are going to have a great legacy.

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