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Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Patricio Becerra

20 Aug 2020, 09:59 UTC
Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Patricio Becerra

Voyage 2050 Viewpoint: Dr Patricio Becerra

In this series from the EPEC Future Research Working Group, Eleni Maria Ravanis talked with three early career planetary science researchers who are lead authors on Voyage 2050 white papers to find out more about how they got involved and what they think planetary science will look like in 2050. 

Dr Patricio Becerra

Dr Patricio Becerra is a post-doc at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Originally from Peru, he completed his PhD in the US at the University of Arizona in 2016, then moved to Bern in 2017. He is the co-lead on the white paper entitled “Mars and the Science Programme: The case for Mars Polar Science”. 

What is the basic idea of your white paper?

Our white paper seeks to promote the continued exploration of Mars, with a particular focus on the polar regions and the icy deposits on the planet’s surface, and how they relate to climate. Mars’ climate, like that of Earth, has changed over time due to oscillations in its orbital parameters, which affect the solar flux on the surface. These oscillations are more extreme on Mars than on Earth, and Mars has no other factors heavily affecting its climate (such as oceans, biology and anthropogenic emissions), resulting in a direct relationship between its geologic deposits and its orbital climate forcing. This is especially evident in the stratified deposits of ice at the poles, and in the icy deposits in the mid latitudes. Therefore, the Martian icy climate record is an ideal laboratory to study the basic causes of planetary climate change. In addition, Martian ice deposits are the most extensive in the inner solar system, after Earth’s, and the possibility of signs of extant or extinct life being present in this ice is considerable. Finally, easily accessible surface ice is indispensable for in-situ resource utilisation by future crewed exploration missions. For all these reasons, continued exploration of Mars benefits not just planetary science, but climatology, geology, astrobiology, and the future of astronautics. The ideas, goals, and mission proposals presented in the white paper were the result of a Keck Institute for Space Science (KISS) Workshop held in 2017 and 2018.

I hope that planetary science becomes truly global.Dr Patricio Becerra

How did you become involved in the white paper?

I specialise in remote sensing of the polar regions of Mars. As a postdoc in Switzerland, I became aware of the white paper call through my boss (Prof. Nicolas Thomas) and the Voyage 2050 website. At the 9th International Conference on Mars, in Pasadena, California, a session was set aside to discuss white papers for NASA’s decadal survey, and for ESA’s Voyage 2050. At this session, Prof. Thomas (who is the PI of ExoMars TGO’s CaSSIS camera) expressed his interest in writing a white paper promoting Mars exploration for the next decades. As we had both participated in the KISS Workshop in 2017 and 2018, I asked him to participate and we decided to focus the paper on Mars Polar Science, adding another collaborator from Canada.

Talk to the authors. Email them, show your enthusiasm and be proactive about becoming involved.Dr Patricio Becerra

What advice do you have for early career researchers who want to get involved in the follow-up of the white papers presented at this workshop?

Talk to the authors. Email them, show your enthusiasm and be proactive about becoming involved. Co-signers are always welcome, and generally, the more interest an author has on their topic, the better it will be for that topic/mission/proposal down the line.

What do you think planetary science will look like in 2050?

It’s hard to say, given numerous political instabilities around the world at the present time. However, I think that at the very least, humans will be back on the Moon before then. Also, I think we will probably have missions to the Ice Giants that are bound to result in numerous discoveries and perhaps completely revolutionise knowledge in planetary science. The upcoming missions to Europa, the Jupiter system, and Titan, will surely generate as much, if not more knowledge as the seminal missions that came before them, namely Galileo and Cassini. Hopefully, this will continue to spark public interest, which will enable more job opportunities for young aspiring planetary scientists.In particular, I hope that planetary science becomes truly global. Currently, the majority of advanced research in planetary science is done primarily in the US and Europe, followed closely by Japan. China and India are beginning to become players in the game, and hopefully this will continue and improve. Coming from Peru, I hope that in the future there will be more contributions from Southern Hemisphere countries, and that research in planetary science (and also other fields) becomes truly diversified.

It would also be great to see more scientists – who in their majority are driven by a passion for the field – in leading positions within companies, or even starting their own space exploration companies that collaborate with agencies, provide payload, staff, and even propose their own mission concepts.Dr Patricio Becerra

Historically, scientists have worked solely with space agencies to perform experiments in space and on planets. Do you think that the growth of private companies bringing payloads in space, e.g., to or around the Moon, is serious and mature enough for scientists to start collaborating with them?

Yes, I do. The disadvantage of private enterprises in research is that most of the time, profit is the most important objective, which tends to bias which type of research gets done, and limits who has access to the results of that research. However, I think that the way forward is collaborations between space agencies and private companies, such as those between NASA and Boeing, historically with Lockheed-Martin, and most recently with Space-X. These types of collaborations reduce the cost of launches and payload construction, while ensuring that the community goals for research are kept at the forefront. It would also be great to see more scientists – who in their majority are driven by a passion for the field – in leading positions within companies, or even starting their own space exploration companies that collaborate with agencies, provide payload, staff, and even propose their own mission concepts.

More about Voyage 2050 Viewpoints.

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