Ohio University Geologist gets spacey at Science Café
By Briagenn Adams, CG News
Ohio University students and local school children alike gathered to listen to Keith A. Milam, from the Department of Geological Sciences at Ohio University, speak about “Virtual Geology: Unraveling Planetary Secrets from Afar” at this week’s Science Café in Frontroom Coffee House in Baker Center.
“A geologist is a person who studies the earth,” Milam explained. “We use our five senses to describe the natural world around us. We’ll even occasionally chew on a rock.”
Milam went on to describe the process of taking a rock, slicing it open, cutting it thinner than a strand of hair, and then shining a light on it to find out about the minerals inside. But, as he pointed out, this process only goes so far as to help discover the properties of Earth’s crust, but it fails to give information on the mantle, core, or inner core.
And that’s where space comes into play. “Our solar system has a 4.6 billion year history,” said Milam. “A lot of what we know about our own planet comes from foreign matter that has made its way to Earth. It’s a waiting game. Meteorites come down, we collect them, and we study them.”
Using this technique, planetary geologists have found out more about the mantle, core-mantle boundary, and core of Earth than they could have ever learned by simply studying our own planet.
The downside, Milam explained, is that getting meteorites from another world is like dragging a body away from a crime scene; we lose the context from which they come. The only solution is to venture out and collect samples right from the source. And Milam said using robotic technology is the only way to do so.
At present, the Earth and Moon have been the boundary for direct human exploration. However, with robotic spacecrafts we have gone well beyond our limits of human travel.
The actual method of exploring outer space has been simplified to seven steps: telescoping, flying by, hard landing, orbiting, soft landing, roving, and returning to Earth with a sample. Roving – or being able to control a robot around a planet to collect data – is the most important part of this process, but unfortunately does not happen very often.
“There’s about a 50 percent chance of even hitting your mark,” Milam said. “And with every mission costing around $4-5 billion, the odds aren’t that great.” However, if President Barack Obama gets his way, Milam said, then in the next 50-100 years we might eventually be able to reach an asteroid.
After Milam was finished with his presentation, The Science Café was opened to questions from the audience. One woman was curious as to how long the delay in communication was from the robot in space to the scientists back on Earth. Milam said that the delay usually takes about 20 minutes. “That’s like the most annoying lab assistant ever!” he joked.
Another spectator asked if, with all of this great technology, human being exploration is even necessary. Milam seemed to be intrigued by this question, and answered with his own question, “Well, what do you think? Do you really think a robot observation can compare with that of a person?”
Milam closed the floor by reminding the audience that with more than 3,012 planets outside our solar system yet to be discovered, planetary geologists are needed. Not only to help humans become better informed about the Universe and beyond, but to also help humans become more informed about Earth.