09/25/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Reading the History of the Universe

Last year, I got to go to a lot of really cool events at MIT, hosted by their Aero/Astro department, so when the opportunity came a few weeks ago to sign up for the department's mailing list and get messages about upcoming events, I did so eagerly. I didn't have to wait very long for my first message and I recognized the guest speaker's name at once.

As I mentioned in my post about watching the Curiosity landing at NASA Headquarters, while most of the space enthusiasts who had come to see the landing left after the first photos from the rover came in, I waited around with a few others for the press conference at 3:00 a.m. Eastern time.

"Live from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California --" A JPL employee announced as the conference started.

"-- this is Monday morning!" I shouted, which all of us found hysterical because we'd been awake for more than 15 hours and were still manic over the successful landing.

The group in Pasadena seemed to be as excited as we were, cheering as the panel members took the stage. Just when I'd thought that night couldn't get any better, we were going to hear from the landing team!

But the first one to speak was JPL Director Charles Elachi, who found exactly the right words to warm our emotionally-charged hearts:

"Good evening, everybody, and welcome to Mars!... About an hour and a half ago, I went outside and looked toward the west. And I saw Mars there and I said, 'In an hour and a half, you are going to have a visitor.' And the planet smiled, and I knew that we were going to have good luck."

A spontaneous "Awwwwww" broke out in among our group in D.C.

A few minutes later, after White House Science Advisor John Holdren and my friend, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, had spoken, Dr. Elachi topped himself by inviting the whole entry, descent and landing team inside to receive applause because the mission had been a team effort.

What a nice guy, I thought, smiling.

So, when the email said that Dr. Charles Elachi would be speaking at MIT on September 17th, I knew I didn't want to miss it. The weather was perfect as I walked down the Esplanade to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, and I reached the MIT campus with more than an hour to go until the lecture started. I decided to go to their student union to get some lunch and directions to the building, which was one I'd never been to before.

The students I talked to said that the Wong Auditorium was "on the other side of campus," towards the Longfellow Bridge, but it was only a 15 minute walk. I got to the building with time to eat lunch before finding a seat in the auditorium. Surprisingly, that wasn't very hard -- it was 2 p.m., and a lot of students were in classes, so there were only people in the first two rows of seats! Everybody got to sit up close, and I ran into a girl who'd been at the Space: The Business Frontier conference at Harvard back in April.

Dr. Elachi was introduced by another space notable -- Maria Zuber, Principal Investigator on the GRAIL moon mission, and an MIT professor. He began his presentation with a few slides showing the history of the Universe. The Big Bang, the formation of stars and galaxies, the birth of our solar system and the planet Earth, the rise of life, and finally... photographs of two college campuses?

"It took 13.7 billion years to get MIT! And Caltech, too." (Caltech is the home of JPL.)

Humor aside, he said that these slides emphasized a big part of the mission of space scientists -- learning to read "the history book of the Universe."

The most obvious way in which JPL is carrying out that mission at present is through the Curiosity mission, attempting to understand the environmental history of Mars. Mars is a big place to explore, Dr. Elachi mentioned, with as much surface area as all of the dry land on Earth. However, its similarities to Earth make it intriguing -- he showed two photographs of similar landscapes and asked us to guess which picture showed Mars and which showed Death Valley.

"The truth is... I forget! They look so similar!" He revealed, making us laugh.

The Curiosity rover builds on JPL's previous Mars rover missions, starting with the lunchbox-sized Sojourner in 1997 -- a demonstration of the rover technology. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers that followed in 2004 were much larger, and functioned as robotic geologists, while Curiosity is larger still and the equivalent of a laboratory chemist on the surface of Mars -- hence her official name, the Mars Science Laboratory.

Most people only became aware of Curiosity when it launched, but it was the culmination of eight years of total work for JPL and six years of testing. On the night of the landing, Dr. Elachi said his greatest worry had been that the supersonic parachute designed to slow the rover down would have malfunctioned or ripped. Six of the engineers in the control room had been MIT graduates, including Flight Director Bobak Ferdowski of Internet fame.

Aside from the engineers in Pasadena and the group I'd been part of at NASA HQ, it was estimated that 50 million people had been watching Curiosity's landing, and shortly afterward, the official mission website had gotten 1.8 billion hits (that's billion, with a "b".) While Curiosity had mostly laid low the first two weeks as the engineers made sure everything was working, by last Monday, when Dr. Elachi talked to us, she had driven 150 meters, and he told us that the control team expected to use the rover's drill for the first time in about 2 1/2 weeks.

Curiosity's mission, Dr. Elachi reminded us, was truly ambitious -- going from her landing site to the top of Mount Sharp was like landing on the beach in Hawaii and driving up Mauna Kea to the observatory at the top!

"Our generation has put tracks on Mars. It looks different now than it ever did before."

However, as celebrated as JPL's missions to Mars are, they're only 15 percent of the center's total work. The Cassini mission has been exploring Saturn since 2004, not just the gas planet itself, but also its moons and rings. The process of collisions within Saturn's rings and the ways that the moons and rings interact may provide an insight into what it's like in young solar systems, with debris coming together to form planets.

Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, is icy and exciting, with huge trenches and geysers on its frozen surface -- and possibly an ocean beneath it! Titan, another of the moons, is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, and has a liquid cycle much like the water cycle on Earth -- except with hydrocarbons in place of water.

One planet in from Saturn, the Juno probe launched last year will study Jupiter's atmosphere once it arrives in 2016. Like Saturn, Jupiter also has some interesting moons, most famously Europa, a frozen world with the same questions of possible subsurface oceans as Enceladus.

The Dawn mission is currently cruising through the asteroid belt, in transit between Vesta and Ceres. The electric propulsion method used by this space probe makes travel between these two asteroids slow, but it provides a lot of "kick" in return for only a little energy expended.

Moving in closer yet, to the nearest celestial object to Earth, the twin GRAIL probes that Dr. Zuber works on have been studying the Moon all year, mapping subtle variations in the Moon's gravity that reveal secrets of its internal structure. The similar GRACE mission does the same thing with the Earth. On Earth, gravity fields can be used to map the locations of water, helping reveal needed subsurface water in drought-stricken areas.

With that, Dr. Elachi ended his presentation, having taken us from Mars out to Saturn, and finally back to Earth. He turned it over to the audience for questions.

I asked Dr. Elachi how he had become interested in space exploration. He said that when he was growing up in Lebanon, he had always been interested in science, and always knew he wanted to be some kind of scientist. When he came to Caltech for college, he learned about JPL's space exploration projects and decided he would work for them for a year after graduating... and 40 years later, here he is! "I get paid for doing explorations!" He gushed.

One man wanted to know how the work done at JPL compared to the projects other NASA Centers are involved in. Dr. Elachi explained that each Center has its own particular specialization -- JPL's is robotics, while the Kennedy Space Center specializes in launch operations, the Johnson Space Center is the location of astronaut training and the primary control center for human spaceflight, etc....

Another listener had heard that Curiosity's great size required special precautions during the landing, and wanted to know if the increasing size and complexity of robotic spacecraft made missions more difficult.

Certainly, Dr. Elachi said, with greater experience in controlling robots on other planets, scientists and engineers are attempting more complicated missions than in the past. But not every spacecraft needs to be large or loaded with instruments.

"There are two questions we have to answer: What is the objective? And what tools do we need to achieve it?" For example, since the GRAIL probes are primarily designed to study the Moon's gravity, most of their instruments are designed with that mission in mind. There are other probes studying the Moon that can gather other kinds of data about it, so the GRAILs only need to focus on gravity mapping.

After the questions, some of us came down to shake hands with Dr. Elachi and asked if we could take pictures with him.

"Oh, but I don't have my Mohawk!" He joked. We laughed, both because it was a funny mental image and because he didn't need one. When it comes to standing out, kindness and a sense of humor works just as well.