December 26, 2019

Third Pod Presents: Sci & Tell – Lori Glaze on Nudging Asteroids

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Lori Glaze at AGU’s annual meeting in 2018. Credit: AGU

Lori Glaze, Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, works with everything from understanding asteroid trajectories and material make up to the InSight mission which recently landed a rover on Mars. It’s no exaggeration to say Lori Glaze’s impact on our understanding of the relationships between Earth and our nearest neighbors is volcanic. In fact, eruptions fascinated her since she was a pre-teen learning about the destructive volcano which buried the Roman city of Pompeii or carefully scraping ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption off the hood of the family car in Seattle in 1980.

Glaze’s early research on volcanoes was largely based on using remote sensing techniques – a skill she later realized could apply just as well to studying past volcanic eruptions on Mars and Venus. Even if the degree of remoteness was a little more exaggerated for these cases, models and fantastic image data could help reveal what past eruption conditions must have been like on these planets. A major mystery she hopes to resolve is whether volcanoes are still active on Venus. “If it’s still active today, it means Venus and Earth are even more similar than we think,” she says. 

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon. Special thanks to Jordana Schmierer for production assistance. 

Transcript

Shane Hanlon: I realized pretty early on that I wanted to have a career in math or science (and realized later or that that or doesn’t really exist). But I never had that classic “aha” moment. Honestly, the only reason I ended up going to grad school to get a PhD in ecology was b/c I randomly learned that I really liked working with amphibians and reptiles in college. But even though I didn’t have that Eureka moment, I basically had the anti-moment. The only grade that I ever received in my K-12 education that was lower than an A was in English in high school. I ended up getting a B+ after bombing the final. The teacher, who was friends with my mom who also worked at my school, told my mom that I came and talk her (the teacher) about the grade that she’d bump it up to an A-. My reply: absolutely not. I hated that class. I hated English. I hated communication. I was going to be scientist and never have to use any of that garbage ever again.

The irony is not lost on my now that I’m a professional science communication training and storytelling.

Shane Hanlon: Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let’s talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I’m Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.

Shane Hanlon: Welcome to episode three! Today we have another interview from our annual meeting in 2018. Our interviewer was Greg Roth.

 

Lori Glaze: My name is Lori Glaze. I’m currently the Acting Director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters. A couple of key events happened pretty early in my life. When I was a preteen was the time of the AD 79 exhibit for the Pompeii eruption from AD 79, so that would have been in 1979. There was a big exhibit that traveled around the world and I’d gone to see that, and I was just fascinated with that exhibit. I thought it was super cool. Again had no sense that that’s where I wanted to go with my life, but again when I was in high school, I was living in Seattle, Washington, in 1980.

                        This would have been a couple of years later, I guess, and at that time Mount St. Helens erupted and impacted me in a real way, in that first off we heard the sound of the eruption. I mean, we heard it about 30 minutes after the blast, because it took that long to travel from Mount St. Helens up to Seattle where I lived, and then we had ash falling on our house that we had to deal with, and ash falling on our cars and scratching the cars, because it’s silica. It’s like little pieces of glass, and so you had to be very careful in wiping the ash off of your car.

                        That was a real experience, that when I got into college and started thinking, and I had the opportunity to take the volcanology class, that was what really drove me, just thinking I really wanted to learn more. I wanted to know more about these incredible geologic features. I had no idea that was a research area at that time, but when I took the class, I realized that that was something I could do.

 

Interviewer:    How would you say that the work you do impacts people back on Earth on a more daily basis?

 

Lori Glaze:       I mentioned already the work with the asteroids, and I think that’s one that absolutely is easy to understand, how that can impact people on Earth.

 

Interviewer:    Hopefully not.

 

Lori Glaze:       Hopefully not impact us, exactly. Pun not intended, but trying to better understand the whole population of those near-Earth objects, whether they be asteroids or comets, trying to understand how many there are, what their orbits are, how big they are, how fast they’re moving. All of that information is incredibly important, so we do a lot of research trying to characterize and understand what that population of objects look like.

                        We’re also looking at doing work, thinking about doing research into how one might do something about an asteroid that might be coming towards Earth. We actually have a mission coming up in a couple years called the Double Asteroid Redirect Test, that’s going to send a spacecraft to a double asteroid. It’s an asteroid plus a little moonlet, and we’re going to impact the spacecraft into the moonlet, just to see how we can impact how fast it’s moving. We don’t want to necessarily move its trajectory, but if we can just speed it up or slow it down just enough, that can make it so that it either passes in front of Earth or just behind Earth when it passes over our path, so that has a direct impact.

 

Lori Glaze:       …and there’s an enormous amount of interest right now in looking at resource utilization on the Moon, on asteroids, potentially even in the future on Mars, a lot of interest. From the NASA side, we’re looking to try and characterize where those types of deposits … like you say, water or ice … where that kind of deposit might be. Understand how big it is and how distributed it is, so that we can possibly make use of that for what we want to do, as you say, for fuels or potentially other applications in the future to sustain humans.

                        There’s a huge amount of commercial interest in that as well, commercial companies that really think that they have a place in going to the Moon, the surface of the Moon, for example, and doing that ore extraction and refinement, and then selling it back to NASA and others that are interested in going to the Moon, and I think that’s fantastic. There’s a huge community of people that are interested in doing that, and we’re working really hard to help them make that happen, because the more often people are going to the Moon, the better the access is for all of us.

My goal is to do science from the Moon, so if there’s commercial companies that want to go to the surface and mine whatever’s there, I want to send some science instruments along with that and do some science while they’re there.

 

Shane Hanlon: I’ve been watching a lot of realistic scifi lately, from The Expanse to Ad Astra, and hearing Lori talk about us nudging asteroids and returning to the moon, that’s cool stuff, and makes me realize that someday, some of that science fiction, will become science fact. Thanks Lori for the inspiration. Thanks also to Greg Roth for conducting this interview. If you like what you’ve heard, stay tuned for more episodes tucked in amongst your regular Third Pod episodes. From this scientist in the studio, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.