Galaxy Quests


By Kathy Svitil

Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Using unmanned spacecraft and giant, Earth-based telescopes like the ones at Keck Observatory in Hawaii...

"At UCLA, by hook or by crook, we've gotten together a great community of people," says Morris, today a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. "Interaction is very important. We can bounce things off each other, shoot each other's ideas down when they need to be shot down. Everyone here is so energetic and active."

Adds Ghez, "I can have great hallway conversations that I couldn't have elsewhere. Beyond astronomy, UCLA has the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics [IGPP], which brings together astronomers, planetary scientists, astrophysicists, mathematicians and other scientists."

Bruins are at work, in fact, on a dizzying array of projects with well-known and evocative sci-fi names, including Cassini, Stardust, Mars Odyssey, the Mars Rovers, the Mars Global Surveyor, the Spitzer Space Telescope (Hubble's orbiting cousin and NASA's most powerful instrument for infrared space astronomy), Chandra, Venus Express and the Mars Express, among others. And then there are the alphabet missions — COBE, WMAP, WISE and more.

...these intrepid explorers plumb the mysteries of the void, such as this double helix nebula.

Cruising the Neighborhood

The solar system, our celestial backyard, is crowded with curious machines launched from Earth, with the enthusiastic participation of Bruin scientists behind many of them. For example, the secrets of the early days of our solar system are the focus of NASA's Dawn mission, headed by Russell, the young man whose interest in space was piqued by that summer job long ago, and who is now UCLA professor of geophysics and space physics and director of the space physics group at IGPP. The spacecraft, launched in May 2006, will orbit Ceres and Vesta, the two largest denizens of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

"We're looking at the way the solar system came together," says Russell. Although Vesta and Ceres are quite different — Vesta has a very bright surface, much like the Moon, that is probably composed of basaltic lava flows, while Ceres has a dark, clay-like surface and possibly dust covering an icy crust — they both "represent bodies that stopped growing along the way," Russell says, making them "the best representatives we have of the early solar system."

The possibility of water on the Red Planet also continues to intrigue scientists. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on Mars in March, and researchers hope that its high-resolution cameras and other sophisticated instruments will offer new insight into the geological activity that continues to shape the planet. David Paige '79, UCLA associate professor of earth and space sciences, is the principal investigator on the Mars Climate Sounder experiment, which will monitor the temperature of the surface and the atmosphere, the amount of dust and water vapor in the clouds. "We'll get a three-dimensional view of the surface and atmosphere, something we've never done with this level of vertical resolution," Paige says.

Beyond Mars, the Cassini spacecraft has been busy snapping stunning images and collecting data about Saturn and its many moons since its arrival at the ringed planet in July 2004. One of the most surprising finds, reported in March 2006 by Krishan Khurana, UCLA professor of space physics, and his colleagues at Imperial College London, concerns the icy moon Enceladus. Using Cassini's magnetometer, which measures the strength and direction of the planet's magnetic field, Khurana and his colleagues detected the first evidence that ice volcanoes are active on the surface of the satellite. During three encounters with the moon in 2005, the magnetometer measured unusual fluctuations in waves in the planet's magnetic field. The scientists concluded that the odd behavior was caused by a huge gassy plume of ionized water vapor, spewing from the moon's south polar region. The plume is proof that the little world is geologically active — and a possible target of future searches for other life in the solar system.

Closer to home, UCLA scientists are preparing for the October 2008 launch of NASA's newest Moon probe, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Paige also is the principal investigator on the LRO's Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment, which will measure and map the temperature of the surface of the Moon and look for regions in the satellite's permanent shadows where water ice might be trapped.