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'Scouting out the future homes of humanity'

August 31, 2017

Mike Summers

For Mike Summers, a planetary scientist at George Mason University, interplanetary explorations, such as the Voyager and Cassini projects, are kind of like Christopher Columbus reaching the New World, but on a cosmic scale.

“In a way, NASA is scouting out the future homes of humanity,” said Summers, who is part of the New Horizons project that explored Pluto. “There are planets, and there are lots of them out there, with vast amounts of resources. There are literally millions of times more resources out there than on the Earth, and so in the next few hundred years you are going to see humanity move into space.”

“Ultimately,” Summers said, “that’s going to be our future home.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Voyager program in which two satellites for the first time probed the outer planets of our solar system. Cassini will end an almost 20-year mission on Sept. 15 when it will intentionally crash into Saturn, the planet it has studied for the past 13 years.

The discoveries have been remarkable.

Voyager I discovered volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon, Io, the first active geology to be seen and studied beyond Earth. Voyager II discovered Neptune’s rings. Cassini discovered that two of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus and Titan, potentially contain environments that could support prebiotic life, according to the website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Cassini also sent the Huygens probe to Titan, the first-ever landing on a moon in the outer solar system.

Harold Geller

“A tremendous achievement,” said George Mason associate professor Harold Geller, director of the Mason Observatory.

Summers and Geller worry, though, that a proposed $561 million cut to NASA’s budget will limit future interplanetary exploration.

“You can just grab iron out in space, but you’d never know that until you went there,” Geller said. “You have incredible sources of methane on the surface of Titan. There are organic molecules that can be used as fuel or primary material in chemical-industrial syntheses to make things.”

“It’s freely available,” Geller said, “and it helps us understand what formed the chemical compounds we have on Earth, that there is a limit to the amount, and if we want to proceed we’re going to have to use the rest of the solar system as natural resources.”

Harold Geller can be reached at 703-993-1276 or hgeller@gmu.edu.

Mike Summers can be reached at 703-993-3971 or msummers@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

About George Mason   

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.