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TED2015

Lucianne Walkowicz: Let's not use Mars as a backup planet

March 16, 2015

Stellar astronomer and TED Senior Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz works on NASA's Kepler mission, searching for places in the universe that could support life. So it's worth a listen when she asks us to think carefully about Mars. In this short talk, she suggests that we stop dreaming of Mars as a place that we'll eventually move to when we've messed up Earth, and to start thinking of planetary exploration and preservation of the Earth as two sides of the same goal. As she says, "The more you look for planets like Earth, the more you appreciate our own planet."

Lucianne Walkowicz - Stellar astronomer
Lucianne Walkowicz works on NASA's Kepler mission, studying starspots and "the tempestuous tantrums of stellar flares." Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
We're at a tipping point in human history,
00:12
a species poised between gaining the stars
and losing the planet we call home.
00:15
Even in just the past few years,
we've greatly expanded
00:21
our knowledge of how Earth fits
within the context of our universe.
00:23
NASA's Kepler mission has discovered
00:28
thousands of potential planets
around other stars,
00:30
indicating that Earth is but one
of billions of planets in our galaxy.
00:33
Kepler is a space telescope
00:38
that measures the subtle dimming of stars
as planets pass in front of them,
00:39
blocking just a little bit
of that light from reaching us.
00:44
Kepler's data reveals planets' sizes
00:47
as well as their distance
from their parent star.
00:50
Together, this helps us understand
whether these planets are small and rocky,
00:52
like the terrestrial planets
in our own Solar System,
00:56
and also how much light they receive
from their parent sun.
00:59
In turn, this provides clues as to whether
these planets that we discover
01:02
might be habitable or not.
01:06
Unfortunately, at the same time
as we're discovering this treasure trove
01:09
of potentially habitable worlds,
01:13
our own planet is sagging
under the weight of humanity.
01:15
2014 was the hottest year on record.
01:18
Glaciers and sea ice that have
been with us for millennia
01:23
are now disappearing
in a matter of decades.
01:26
These planetary-scale environmental
changes that we have set in motion
01:29
are rapidly outpacing our ability
to alter their course.
01:34
But I'm not a climate scientist,
I'm an astronomer.
01:39
I study planetary habitability
as influenced by stars
01:42
with the hopes of finding
the places in the universe
01:46
where we might discover
life beyond our own planet.
01:48
You could say that I look for
choice alien real estate.
01:51
Now, as somebody who is deeply embedded
in the search for life in the universe,
01:55
I can tell you that the more
you look for planets like Earth,
02:00
the more you appreciate
our own planet itself.
02:03
Each one of these new worlds
invites a comparison
02:07
between the newly discovered planet
and the planets we know best:
02:09
those of our own Solar System.
02:13
Consider our neighbor, Mars.
02:15
Mars is small and rocky,
and though it's a bit far from the Sun,
02:17
it might be considered
a potentially habitable world
02:21
if found by a mission like Kepler.
02:23
Indeed, it's possible that Mars
was habitable in the past,
02:25
and in part, this is why
we study Mars so much.
02:29
Our rovers, like Curiosity,
crawl across its surface,
02:32
scratching for clues as to the origins
of life as we know it.
02:35
Orbiters like the MAVEN mission
sample the Martian atmosphere,
02:39
trying to understand how Mars
might have lost its past habitability.
02:42
Private spaceflight companies now offer
not just a short trip to near space
02:46
but the tantalizing possibility
of living our lives on Mars.
02:50
But though these Martian vistas
02:54
resemble the deserts
of our own home world,
02:56
places that are tied in our imagination
to ideas about pioneering and frontiers,
02:59
compared to Earth
03:04
Mars is a pretty terrible place to live.
03:06
Consider the extent to which
we have not colonized
03:09
the deserts of our own planet,
03:12
places that are lush
by comparison with Mars.
03:14
Even in the driest,
highest places on Earth,
03:17
the air is sweet and thick with oxygen
03:20
exhaled from thousands of miles away
by our rainforests.
03:23
I worry -- I worry that this excitement
about colonizing Mars and other planets
03:27
carries with it a long, dark shadow:
03:33
the implication and belief by some
03:36
that Mars will be there to save us
from the self-inflicted destruction
03:38
of the only truly habitable planet
we know of, the Earth.
03:41
As much as I love
interplanetary exploration,
03:45
I deeply disagree with this idea.
03:48
There are many excellent reasons
to go to Mars,
03:50
but for anyone to tell you that Mars
will be there to back up humanity
03:53
is like the captain of the Titanic
telling you that the real party
03:56
is happening later on the lifeboats.
03:59
(Laughter)
04:02
(Applause)
04:05
Thank you.
04:08
But the goals of interplanetary
exploration and planetary preservation
04:10
are not opposed to one another.
04:14
No, they're in fact two sides
of the same goal:
04:16
to understand, preserve
and improve life into the future.
04:19
The extreme environments
of our own world are alien vistas.
04:23
They're just closer to home.
04:27
If we can understand how to create
and maintain habitable spaces
04:29
out of hostile, inhospitable
spaces here on Earth,
04:33
perhaps we can meet the needs
of both preserving our own environment
04:37
and moving beyond it.
04:40
I leave you with a final
thought experiment:
04:42
Fermi's paradox.
04:45
Many years ago, the physicist Enrico Fermi
asked that, given the fact
04:46
that our universe has been around
for a very long time
04:51
and we expect that there
are many planets within it,
04:54
we should have found evidence
for alien life by now.
04:57
So where are they?
05:00
Well, one possible solution
to Fermi's paradox
05:02
is that, as civilizations become
technologically advanced enough
05:05
to consider living amongst the stars,
05:09
they lose sight of how important it is
05:11
to safeguard the home worlds that fostered
that advancement to begin with.
05:14
It is hubris to believe
that interplanetary colonization alone
05:18
will save us from ourselves,
05:23
but planetary preservation
and interplanetary exploration
05:24
can work together.
05:28
If we truly believe in our ability
05:30
to bend the hostile environments of Mars
for human habitation,
05:32
then we should be able to surmount
the far easier task of preserving
05:36
the habitability of the Earth.
05:39
Thank you.
05:41
(Applause)
05:42

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Lucianne Walkowicz - Stellar astronomer
Lucianne Walkowicz works on NASA's Kepler mission, studying starspots and "the tempestuous tantrums of stellar flares."

Why you should listen

Lucianne Walkowicz is an Astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. She studies stellar magnetic activity and how stars influence a planet's suitability as a host for alien life. She is also an artist and works in a variety of media, from oil paint to sound. She got her taste for astronomy as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins, testing detectors for the Hubble Space Telescope’s new camera (installed in 2002). She also learned to love the dark stellar denizens of our galaxy, the red dwarfs, which became the topic of her PhD dissertation at University of Washington. Nowadays, she works on NASA’s Kepler mission, studying starspots and the tempestuous tantrums of stellar flares to understand stellar magnetic fields. She is particularly interested in how the high energy radiation from stars influences the habitability of planets around alien suns. Lucianne is also a leader in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a new project that will scan the sky every night for 10 years to create a huge cosmic movie of our Universe.

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