Could Earth scientists create their own equivalent to the James Webb Space Telescope?
The primordial fires are triggered just after the Big Bang. The atmospheres of distant planets around another star. Towering pillars of interstellar dust glow in the vastness of space. This is what the new NASA images show James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have offered us. These new insights into the depths of space (and time) were significant enough that even the President got involved in bringing the show to global audiences. The JWST is a technological marvel that will change our understanding of the universe.
Which brings me to my question: what would it take for Earth Science to have an observatory/instrument that could rival the JWST in terms of new data and capturing the public imagination? Astronomers have it easy (to some degree) because the images taken by a space telescope like the JWST are aesthetically stunning (at least the ones they highlight). They represent vantage points no human could have without the JWST and take us to places no human will likely ever visit.
Yet earth science doesn’t seem to have the same fondness for big, expensive projects like physicists and astronomers. Is it a lack of ambition for such things or is it something else in the nature of the discipline that means there is no equivalent or potential equivalent to the JWST?
I spoke to a group of Earth scientists and got a long list of past “high profile” projects. Here’s a bit:
EarthScope: This massive, mobile set of seismometers that crossed North America. This allowed the most detailed examination of the structure of a continent and seismicity across North America ever.
IODP: The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) has revealed an immense volume of information about the Earth’s past through ocean sediments and the structure of the ocean crust.
Kola drilling in Russia: Mainly because it was the deepest drill hole ever, reaching ~40,000 feet (~7.5 miles/12 kilometers).
Mapping mid-ocean ridges: Work from the mid-twentieth century to the present day to create highly detailed maps of the seabed, particularly mid-ocean ridges, launched us into the age of plate tectonics.
Daily coverage of the planet’s surface from space – including LandSatTerra/Aqua, GOES, Planet: 25 years ago, we wouldn’t know about eruptions in remote, uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean unless a ship was nearby. Now we can see minute shifts on the planet as they occur.
All of these ambitious projects have given us something new and daring (but not always successful, like Project Mohole).
But how could we surpass them? What information about our planet might get everyone’s attention (not just us Earth scientists/nerds)? Let’s speculate!
A probe in an active volcano
There are a number of volcanoes on Earth with active lava lakes. Could we develop an autonomous drone that could be dropped into a lava lake and descend into the volcano’s plumbing system? We could directly observe or measure the conditions within an active erupting volcano. On the flip side of the coin, rremember that lava is much denser and viscous than water…and a bit hotter, right? How could we retrieve the collected data anyway? In any case, it really fits into the dreams of Jules Verne and the journey inside our planet.
A new state-of-the-art vessel for drilling in the ocean floor
Much of our knowledge of IODP comes from work on the Resolution, a huge research and drilling vessel. However, it was built in 1978 and is close to retirement after more than 40 years of service. However, no funding has yet been identified for replace ship with a state-of-the-art drillship to continue its work. The Resolve can drill several kilometers into oceanic crust when stationed above 5 kilometers of ocean depth. A new ship could be designed to potentially drill into the mantle where the oceanic crust is thinnest and, more importantly, continue the work started by Resolution and Glomar Explorer.
Real-time map of plate motion at meter scale
We know the planet is dynamic — it’s because of plate tectonics. Yet many of the ways we measure change involve either interpreting evidence of past movement or using locations with GPS stations to provide us with point data. Could a method be devised that combines observations of the Earth from orbit, GPS and InSAR (synthetic aperture radar) or LIDAR to show a constant and minute movement? This would likely involve massive computing power to produce the data, but it could allow for a much more nuanced assessment of stress and movement in the Earth’s crust.
A global EarthScope
The EarthScope project across North America has been a huge success. The next step could be to broadcast EarthScope globally to all continents. Then, comparisons could be made between continents. We could then think of creating a 3D map of the Earth’s crust – once we also add an ocean version of EarthScope into the mix.
Pierce a comet, asteroid or moon
We have taken a few small steps towards understanding the primordial elements of the solar system such as comets, asteroids and moons. We even salvaged materials from a few, but mostly by literally scraping the surface. What would we find if we landed on the salt mountain of Ceres, the ice of Europa, the surface of Titan and started drilling? Journeys inside these objects could reveal what so many people hope to find (life?), but even beyond that, getting a glimpse of what’s inside would be worth the investment. and risk.
Earth scientists on Mars
Perhaps the best goal is to ensure that when we leave our planet, Earth scientists will be among the first to make the journey. Mapping and directly observing another planet like Mars or visiting our Moon would not only unlock the secrets of those places, but also give us more information about our own planet. Although the goal of some of these missions may be colonization or resource, we will need a solid base in geology wherever you are… and although we don’t know if any of these planets or moons has life, we know they all have rocks.
I realize that it takes a lot of money, political capital and time for projects like these to come to fruition. However, without these kinds of “big dreams”, you can sometimes get caught up playing on the sidelines. Human progress has been driven by scientific curiosity and risk taking. Creating an environment where all scientists can do this – or at least come up with crazy ideas for exploration – should be the main goal as we approach the middle of the 21st century. Without it, we will find ourselves following the paths set by people who may have other ideas in mind for our future.