A Vision for Planetary Science in 2050

We need to dream, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.

A view over Jupiter’s south pole from NASA's Juno spacecraft.

This week in Washington, NASA held a Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, with a goal of providing a compelling, 35-year vision of where planetary science and solar system exploration might be headed, beyond the usual NASA “Decadal Surveys,” which look only 10 years into the future.

The meeting was subdivided into tracks—Life, Origins, Defense and Resources, Workings, and Policies—and included both oral and poster presentations, as well as panel discussions that were open to attendees and livestreamed to the public. I was part of the Life track, presenting ideas by William Bains and me on how to test in the future for the frequency of complex life in the Universe, building on our previous Cosmic Zoo hypothesis  (as distinguished from the Rare Earth hypothesis).

One of the most insightful and creative talks in the Life track was given by Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, who talked about the need to develop a Star Trek-style tricorder that could not only detect life, but perhaps even determine the kind of life that’s present on another world. Unfortunately this is still science fiction. But in my view, that’s exactly what such a meeting should be about: to dream boldly, then go for it.

There was one other such inspiring talk in the Working track, by planetary scientist James Head of Brown University, who made a strong case that we should not keep taking “covered wagons” with all our supplies as we venture out to explore the Solar System, but should instead build up infrastructure, especially in Earth orbit and possibly also on the Moon, that will allow future science expeditions.

Julie Castillo and Tony Freeman, both from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, made a convincing case that the greatest advances we can expect in space technology will come from the use of CubeSats and other small space probes. Private space companies are bound to take the lead there. 

With regard to science priorities, the elephant in the room was addressed only briefly in a panel discussion: Do we want to move all the diverse research areas of planetary science forward equally, even if it means that we only achieve incremental progress in each? Or should we single out one theme or objective, and try to make a major leap forward?

If the latter, what should the theme be? A human mission to Mars, a Moon base, landers and submersible missions to the so-called “ocean worlds” of the outer Solar System?  Or maybe huge telescopes to observe exoplanets, a planetary defense system against asteroids, or building-up of infrastructure as Head suggested?

Choosing a single focus would require sacrifices from other scientists, who would not be able to move ahead as fast as they envision. But given current budgets, if we don’t make a choice, all of us will move ahead at a snail’s pace. And of course, several speakers pointed out that the decision depends heavily on what the new U.S. administration wants to do. Whatever it is, we need to go boldly!

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