March 26, 2018

Briefing Recap: Space Discovery through Cutting-Edge Technology

Posted by bwebster

On Tuesday, 27 February 2018 the House Earth and Space Science Caucus hosted a briefing on “Space Discovery through Cutting-Edge Technology.”

Representative Polis (CO-02), co-chair of the caucus, kicked off the briefing with a speech highlighting the awe-inspiring nature of space discovery and the key role technology plays in science. Representative Costello (PA-06), the other caucus co-chair co-sponsoring the briefing, was unable to attend.

The panel was moderated by Randy Showstack, a senior news writer for, who reports on policy, politics, and discovery in the areas of Earth and space science and

Waves of the Future by Dr. Maura McLaughlin, Professor, West Virginia University

Dr. McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Dr. McLaughlin began by explaining that gravitational waves change the distances between objects and that pulsars (or celestial clocks) can be used to measure changes in distance due to gravitational waves. Pulsars are the densest objects in the universe, incredibly stable, and predictable rotators. In fact, Dr. McLaughlin was able to tell us what the spinning period of a pulsar will be on 25 November 2115 (or the 200th Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity).

Dr. McLaughlin and others are able to make these calculations due to phenomenal facilities such as Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, which are the most sensitive telescopes searching for pulsars in the world. Lastly, Dr. McLaughlin shared with the audience how the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, which has discovered seven pulsars, has involved over 2000 students in 18 states.


Next Weather Challenges by Dr. Shelley Petroy, Ball Aerospace

Dr. Petroy, Manager, Earth Science Mission Development

First, Dr. Petroy presented a snapshot of the industries that use Ball Aerospace products, from defense and intelligence, to civil space and commercial endeavors. Dr. Petroy went on to talk about important Earth observations being conducted by Ball products, such as CALIPSO, GEMS/TEMPO, GMI, SAGE III, OMPS, OLI, and JPSS-1 satellites.

Finally, Dr. Petroy discussed NOAA’s next top priorities: the 2018 NOAA Satellite Observing System Architecture (NSOSA)​, which seeks to define NOAA’s weather forecasting needs beyond the current suite of satellites; the 2018 National Academy of Sciences: Earth Science Decadal Survey, which lays out which types of Earth observation should be prioritized by NOAA, NASA, and USGS to a lesser extent; and instrument cost reduction.

An important take away from Dr. Petroy’s talk was the need for NOAA to have a dedicated program and accompanying funding for next-generation Earth observation and weather forecasting needs. This program would serve as both an innovation source for weather forecasting and also allow NOAA to innovate to lower costs of future missions.

Exploring Frontiers in Exoplanets Science with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by Dr. Nikole Lewis, of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Dr. Lewis, Associate Astronomer, JWST Project Scientist

Dr. Lewis opened her talk by stating that exoplanet science seeks to answer two fundamental questions for humanity: “How Did We Get Here?” and “Are We Alone?”

Dr. Lewis discussed the rapidly advancing nature of exoplanet research. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1995 and as of February 2018 scientists have confirmed more than 3500 exoplanets in 2018. Significantly, the science is advancing beyond detection into characterizing exoplanets and answering important questions like “what are they made of?” and “what is the air like?” Dr. Lewis focuses on the second question. If we know the air composition, then we can start to discern whether the planet is habitable or Earth-like.

Dr. Lewis explained how JWST will advance planetary science discoveries building upon the capabilities of the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Hubble and Spitzer allowed us to observe larger Jupiter and Neptune-like planets and JWST will enable scientists to study smaller Earth-like planets through coronagraphy and high-precision time-series observations transiting exoplanets. These measurements will allow scientists to discern insights into planet formulation and evolution as well as the climate of exoplanets. In sum, JWST will lead us further on the path to answering, “Are We Alone?”

Following the talks, the question and answer period touched on how do we further the pipeline for women in STEM, the ways in which science and technology are driving each other, and finally the important role federal investment plays in science. All of the panelists emphasized the singular role of government in being able to invest in the big facilities and technology needed for big science but also the need for a funding environment that doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

Learn more about the House Earth and Space Science Caucus here.