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NASA-JPL & the Search for Life in the Universe | SXSW 2021

Michael Watkins
Director at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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SXSW 2021
March 20, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
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About speaker

Michael Watkins
Director at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Michael Watkins became Director of JPL on July 1, 2016. In this role he also serves as a vice president of the California Institute of Technology, which staffs and manages JPL for NASA.Watkins, an engineer and scientist, previously was on the staff of JPL for 22 years. In 2015-16 he spent a year at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Clare Cockrell Williams Chair in Engineering and was director of the university's Center for Space Research.During his JPL career, Watkins served as chief scientist for the Laboratory's Engineering and Science Directorate, manager of JPL's Science Division and manager of its Navigation and Mission Design Section. He was mission manager from development through landed operations for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which sent the Curiosity rover to Mars. He also led NASA development and review teams for the Cassini, Mars Odyssey and Deep Impact robotic space missions.

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About the talk

Have you looked at the night sky and wondered if we're alone? Do one or more of those points of light harbor life? The Jet Propulsion Laboratory — a research facility managed for NASA by Caltech — home to the interstellar Voyager spacecraft, all successful Mars rovers, and mission control for deep space, is tantalizingly close to technologies that can answer those big questions. In this featured session, go inside the lab with JPL center director Mike Watkins; take a virtual trip to Mars, icy moons and planets around other suns; and join the #SearchForLife.#searchforlife

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Hi, I'm Mike Watkins director of the jet propulsion laboratory here in Pasadena. California. Behind me is what we call the center of the universe. It's our deep-space Mission Control Center and it's where we talked a spacecraft far beyond Earth's orbit. It's been staffed 24/7 365 days a year since 1964 and has been home to many of the critical moments in history of Planetary, Exploration, and virtually every picture you've ever seen from another planet has come through this room. Here Engineers are constantly, transmitting and receiving signals

through the deep space Network for the DS. And as we call it, the DIA sin is their primary way we send signals from here. All the way to here. For the next several minutes in our spacecraft, especially imagine for South by Southwest. I'll be taking you on a journey. It's over most important missions and recent discoveries in the exciting search for life. In the universe. Each of us has looked up in the night sky and wondered. Are we alone or just one of those points of light? Harbor life? Now for the first

time they feel is tantalizingly close to answering that question. Let's look at one of the closest point of light in the night sky, the planet Mars. For hundreds of years, we've been imagining Mars as a Place full of life friendly, or not so much, but when they first visited, Mars was spacecraft, it looked cold dry and quite lonely. We've been landed on Mars in 1976 to test the soil for signs of current life. ACS is close to Vertical straight down. Incredible engineering challenge for 1976 but it's generally accepted that the experiments came up negative. Over the

years, scientists digested data from our detailed or reviews of Mars and started to form a hypothesis has apparently used to be more habitable warmer weather. A denser atmosphere and overtime grew colder and dryer. And is no longer habitable at least at the surface. We can easily access So we realized, we need to visit the parts of Mars that are the oldest in order to understand what Ancient Mars was really like. First, with spirit and opportunity. and then through Phoenix, and especially curiosity, we found remnants of Ancient. Mars

that definitely showed us. Mars was once habitable In fact, Mars was probably a blue planet, three or four billion years ago with oceans rivers and even a lake with curiosity was able to tell us when he'll drink well water. And we found and are still searching further for signs of organic molecules that scientists associate with life. We learned two key lessons from Curiosity. The first is that where you land and Explorer are critical? You have to go to the places

that preserve remnants of those ancient days. Three and a half billion years ago when Mars was habitable Secondly we will always be limited in the amount of scientific equipment. We can take to the surface of Mars especially when it comes to looking for things as subtle as signs of ancient life. So, the scientist and NASA made a decision. Let's go to the best side on Mars, that preserve signs of that ancient habitability around that area, and then bring them back to the Earth. Were the most

sophisticated analysis laboratories on the planet can analyze those samples for signs of ancient life. We call this the Mars sample-return campaign and it starts with the perseverance Rover, which landed on Mars on February 18th. Let's take a closer look at what it took to design, build, and operate a robotic Explorer and astrobiologist that will collect those samples. The drill and other components are critical to the sampling system. These are the scientific instruments mounted on the Mast and on the arm being

installed. Finishing up the mobility system, lean to The Rovers first drive and final System test. Over a thousand J. P ehlers have been responsible for getting perseverance to the surface of Mars. This is actual footage, we received during perseverance, is entry descent and Landing. And captured for the first time in breathtaking detailing. You can see everything from the inflation of the supersonic. Parachute that opens in less than one second. To The Descent stage lowering the Rover

under the surface of Mars. And then the Rover looking back at The Descent stage as it flies away for the first time we can now also share the experience of landing on Mars. Perseverance has landed in Jezebel crater, an ancient Lake Bed and Delta the first choice for Mar scientist. It will be able to roll across the area, letting the team, select the best spots to collect samples to sampling system, is one of the most complex, mechanical robotic systems ever sent into space with the ability to Corinth Rock, move that sample

into an individual storage tube and then seal that tube and move on to the next sample. Of course, all this Hardware also had to be painstakingly cleaned and handled during final assembly so that the fewest possible Earth Organics our present, we want to find Ancient, Mars life, not refined Earth, life, Perseverance will collect a few dozen samples for later returned to the Earth. In order to help the team, select the best samples, the Rover also carries a number of sophisticated cameras, along with instruments, to measure the composition

of rocks and soil. In 2026, we intend to launch another mission to go and retrieve the samples. This mission called the sample retrieval Lander will carry a small Rover able to drive over to the perseverance samples and pick them up, and a perseverance is still working fine. Which I expect. She can also drive over to us and drop off the samples, which cylinder then puts into a special container. Then in a planter in Exploration, first the sample, container is loaded into a rocket on the Lander and launched from the surface of Mars into Mars orbit.

They're in orbit around Mars, another spacecraft currently in design by the European Space Agency, or Rendezvous and capture the sample container and loaded into an air dynamic, entry vehicle, and return it to the Earth where the samples will safely land at the Utah test and training range, completing the Mars sample-return mission. And Humanity's first round trip of samples from another planet. But Mars isn't the only place in the solar system that may have once been or even still be habitable. Let's turn our attention to the ocean worlds of the outer solar system.

Most of us including scientists thought of the earth not just as an ocean planet but as the ocean planet and it closer to the Sun is too hot for liquid water and further away, it's too cold, but shockingly starting really just in the last 20 years. We realized there are places in the outer solar system or conditions. You allow liquid water to exist in a stable way. let's look at the moon of Jupiter called, Europa It's actually about the size of our own Moon and completely ice covered with virtually. No atmosphere. It orbits Jupiter every three

and a half days in a not quite circular orbit and that tiny eccentricity causes Europa to stretch a little and back as it goes around Jupiter just like the tides here on the Earth. That tile stretching back and forth. Actually he's up the inside of Europa and melt the ice. so that we are now almost certain there is an ocean under the surface, ice count, The icecap maybe tens of Miles thick, but the ocean could be a hundred miles d. And in fact, europa's, ocean probably contains more water than all of the

Earth's oceans combined. It's also looking very likely that the water from that ocean makes its way up through cracks in the ice and possibly even geysers up at times. Because the service is fairly young, you noticed it doesn't have the craters, you might expect because the surface keeps getting renewed with water and then refreezing. Scientist. Realize there is one place we know with a water ocean. That's here on Earth and we have life. So that's why Europa could be the next best candidate for

life. And not just ancient life, maybe even existing life. So, NASA created the Europa Clipper mission. Currently set to launch in 2024. Clipper will fly over, Europa dozens of times. Conducting remote sensing of the ice composition looking for warmer spots or there could be Center ice or geysers measuring the particles around Europa and using an ice penetrating radar to study the structure of the ice and measure its depth. Clipper is one of the largest and most complex

robotic spacecraft ever built. And just to give you a sense of scale, its solar panels are the size of a basketball court. If Clipper confirms that Europa is indeed a candidate for habitability, we are already planning a Lander that could directly sample the ice on the surface and examine it for signs of life. An even early Technologies for a mission that could drill through the ice and explore the ocean by a submarine. But there may also be an easier way to get to another planet ocean.

Europa is not the only moon with an ice-covered water. Ocean, Saturn's moon Enceladus, actually has active geysers and they've been photographed by the Cassini spacecraft during its decade-long Mission at Saturn. That same type of force that keeps up the ice. Also cracks along it to form. These guys are like spray JPL and NASA are actively working on missions to fly directly through the geysers analyzing the water droplets. GPO has designed the world's most advanced miniaturize like detecting Suite that combines microscopes electrophoresis and other techniques into a

tiny package that robots could take into the ocean world. One concert we have is called eels. Between Vision to look something like this. Which is a swimming robot. Play, perhaps, we could maneuver through a crevasse and into the ocean on Enceladus, where could search for signs of life in that ocean. So far in this talk, we focused on our own solar system. But in an astonishing set of discoveries almost entirely in the last 10 years, the latest space born and ground-based observations have shown us that almost every Star we look at carefully has planetary companions. In fact,

there are probably more planets than stars and that gives us billions more chances. That one of them has life. We are close to having the technology to make that discovery. Welcome to JPL and NASA is exoplanet program. How do you observe an exoplanet at present? You are essentially look for the gravitational effect on its host star. The tiny tubs that changes position or you look for a tiny bit of dimming of the Star, as the exoplanet passes between us and the star and blocks a bit of

the light. Using these techniques, we found thousands of exoplanets. Summers potentially close is our nearest neighbor for light years away is Proxima Centauri and some vastly farther away. But why don't we look at the exoplanets directly instead of just their effect on the host star. Well, the reason is that we only want to look at the light that is reflected off the exoplanet and not the light coming directly from the star. And it turns out that the light from the exoplanet is less than 1 billion of the light coming directly from the star.

So we need to block out that light like the sun visor in your car. GPO is developing exactly those Technologies, and that should allow us to directly image. The first is called a Coronavirus. At work by putting a special. On the Optics of a space, born telescope. We Central Point a telescope at the star and line up the dot to mask out the star. In fact we called it. I'm asked And then with that light, mostly blocked, we try to reconstruct the image of the exoplanet.

As you can imagine, there was a huge amount of engineering to do this, but we are actually building this instrument now to fly on the Nancy Grace, Roman telescope currently planned for launch in 2025. We are also working on a concept in which of the Mask is not on the Optics, but actually is a separate spacecraft. We positioned that spacecraft out in front of the telescope and the spacecraft blocks, the light in the central star. And again, we try to reconstruct the image of the exoplanets. We call this a star shade,

One of the biggest challenges is how to fold up such a large structure into the launch vehicle, so we can get it into space. And the designers have drawn inspiration from the ancient art of origami. Each of these techniques as pros and cons, and we are working both to determine the best ways to use each. And we have another goal in mind. Some of the light from the distant star passes through the atmosphere of the exoplanet and when light passes through gas,

some parts of the light are absorbed by the gas think of it, like some of the colors of the rainbow are absorbed and not present. When we received the light, the parts that are removed are very sensitive to the composition of the atmosphere. So that means we can look at individual planets and tell whether their atmosphere has oxygen and water and could be Earth 2.0. Perhaps, with sufficient data, we could even determine if the atmosphere is being affected by life as it modifies, it expected chemistry. I hope today's talk has given you an idea of the incredible

progress being made at JPL and NASA in the search for life. It's a wonderful time to be part of that Journey. As we take the next important steps will life be found here in our own solar system or orbiting a distant star. Come with us and let's find out together.

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