Alumni Newsletter 2012-2013
The Third Moscow Solar System Symposium - October 8-12, 2012
Space Research Institute, Moscow, Russia
by Ken Ramsley
A science meeting that attempts to present topics that cover the entire solar system in plenary sessions from the points of view of the planetary sciences, space mission planners and national funding priorities is reminiscent of kabobs skewered, cooked and served steaming hot last Sunday at Moscow's Vernissage flea market. At the Third Moscow Solar System Symposium meeting -- with more than 800 exoplanets discovered to date -- we were reminded of how many planets there might be in the Universe (perhaps as many as there are stars!), and from this perspective, several papers focused on planetary system formation as universal processes where own solar system is now more often viewed as a well-studied case rather than an archetype for what we might expect to find in other systems.
Rather than equations, the Universe produces phenomena, an with the discovery of phenomena and its correlation to theory as a major goal, we were privileged to witness presentations on proposed spacecraft missions to the Moon, Venus, Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter, each at various stages of planning. Russian Federation Roscosmos head, Vladimir Popovkin, emphasized mission plans in cooperation with the European Space Agency including the ExoMars orbiter/lander (where NASA had once been a partner), and also ambitious plans for two lunar landers, a Mars sample-return mission and a reconstituted attempt to return samples from Phobos after the deeply-felt failure of Phobos Grunt, which was lost last year (to be relaunched in ~2022).
In a poster session I presented my own research on Phobos which focuses on the proportions and distribution of martian impact ejecta that might be observed in the regolith of Phobos. Research on this moon is largely driven by how we have answered so few of the big questions even after spacecraft data in hand going back 36 years. We know the bulk density of Phobos (~1.86 g/cm3) and its shape (average radius ~11.08 km). But we don't know where it was formed, how it was formed, why it orbits within the synchronous altitude of Mars, if it is desiccated or potentially a huge source of frozen water. Planetary researchers often lament a lack of data, and in the case of Phobos, we are clearly lacking at least one key piece of the puzzle. Adding to the mystery, Phobos is raked and cross-cut by hundreds of ancient grooves produced by unknown forces > ~3 Gyr ago, according to the presentation of Schmedemann et al. Shi, Willner and Oberst presented a poster that maps surface gravitational forces where today some of the grooves trace gravitationally through uphill and downhill tracks, whereas when Phobos orbited at higher altitudes from Mars the uphill and downhill distributions were vastly different due to the slower orbital and tidally-locked rotational angular velocity. In conversations with Dr. Oberst, I learned, to my relief, that the three-dimensional model of Phobos produced by Peter Thomas from NASA data two decades ago (and often at the center of my research on Phobos) has been refined more recently with only minor improvements in localized surface detail, and the Thomas model is still a valid shape for simulations of the interaction of Phobos with ejecta from Mars, debris trapped in orbits of Mars and other physical intersections.
Beyond the meeting, our five-day visit to Moscow included scheduling kabobs where we managed to squeeze in a visit to Red Square and to Gum (pronounced "goom"), one of the most opulent shopping places on the planet where common people are still welcome, that also predates shopping malls built in the USA by at least 50 years (if the "first mall in America" claim of the original Shopper's World in Framingham, MA is true). We also visited the State Historical Museum adjacent to Red Square, which has endured two revolutions since its construction, and where the 20th Century housed on the third floor is not currently open for inspection. On Tuesday evening of our visit we attended the Kremlin Theater ballet for a rousing performance of Sleeping Beauty, and the evening prior to our departure we enjoyed a newly opened musical which places a slight spin on the trials and travails of Catherine the Great, who was apparently far more inclined to hand out trials and travails than accept or tolerate those directed at her by others.