The 2,399th Meeting of the Society

November 2, 2018 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Comets and the Origin of Life

The Proposed CAESAR Mission to Return a Comet Sample to Earth

Steven W. Squyres

James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences
Cornell University

About the Lecture

Comets are among the oldest and most interesting objects in the solar system.  Learning about them can tell us a great deal about the origins and formation of the solar system, and perhaps about the origin of life. For example, researchers have speculated that tholin-rich comets may have seeded earth with organic compounds early in its development, stimulating life to begin.

The Rosetta mission studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko at close range for two years.  The trove of information from Rosetta provides a highly detailed basis for designing a sample return mission to this comet.  And the detection of tholins on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko make it an extremely attractive object for further study, with the promise of illuminating how life began.

The Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return Mission (CAESAR) is a proposed mission back to 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to sample the comet and bring the samples back to earth.  Currently, it is one of a pair of finalists selected for further concept development in NASA’s New Frontiers Program.  The other is the Dragonfly mission to Titan.  If CAESAR is selected, and things go smoothly, it will launch in 2024 and return samples to Earth in 2038.

This lecture will discuss the reasons for visiting 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko again and bringing samples of the comet back to earth for detailed study, and the engineering and science mission proposal being developed.

About the Speaker

Steven Squyres is James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University.  Before joining the Cornell faculty, he was a postdoctoral associate and research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

Concurrently, Steve is the Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, a co-investigator on Mars Express and for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, a member of the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer Team for Mars Odyssey, and a member of the Cassini imaging team.  Previously, he was an associate of the Voyager imaging science team, radar investigator on the Venus Magellan mission, member of the Mars Observer gamma-ray spectrometer team, and  co-investigator on the Russian Mars ’96 mission.

Steve’s research focuses on the robotic exploration of planetary surfaces, the history of water on Mars, geophysics and tectonics of icy satellites, tectonics of Venus, planetary gamma-ray and x-ray spectroscopy. Research for which he is best known includes study of the history and distribution of water on Mars and of the possible existence and habitability of a liquid water ocean on Europa.

Among other awards, Steve is the recipient of the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Communication in Planetary Science, the Mines Medal, the AAU’s Urey Prize and the Franklin Institute’s Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science.

He is an author on numerous technical papers, and the book, Roving Mars.  He has appeared often in the media speaking on space and space exploration.

Steve earned a BA in Geological Sciences and a PhD in Astronomy from Cornell University, where he worked closely with Carl Sagan.