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Could Earth Scientists Create Their Own Equivalent to the James Webb Space Telescope?

The James Webb Space Telescope has amazed the public with images of the universe. What kind of "big idea" project could the Earth scientists pursue to create the same level of public excitement?

Rocky Planet iconRocky Planet
By Erik Klemetti
Jul 18, 2022 5:30 PMJul 18, 2022 5:37 PM
Image from the James Webb Space Telescope
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)


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The primordial fires just after the Big Bang. The atmospheres of distant planets around another star. The towering pillars of interstellar dust glowing brightly in the vastness of space. That is what the new images from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have offered us. These new glimpses deep into space (and time) were important enough that even the President got involved in presenting the show to the global public. The JWST is a technological marvel that will change our understanding of the universe.

Which leads me to my question: what would it take for the Earth Sciences to have an observatory/instrument that could rival the JWST in terms of new data and capture of the public's imagination? Astronomers have it easy (to some degree) as the images that a space telescope like the JWST take are aesthetically breathtaking (at least the ones that they highlight). They represent views that no human could have if it wasn't for the JWST and take us to places that no human will likely ever visit.

Yet, the Earth Sciences don't seem to have this same penchant for large, expensive projects like the physicists and astronomers. Is it a lack of ambition for such things or is it something else about the nature of the discipline that means that there is no equivalent or potential equivalent to the JWST?

I talked to a bunch of Earth Scientists and got a long list of past "high profile" projects. Here's a smattering:

  • EarthScope: This massive, moving array of seismometers that marched across North America. This allowed for the the most detailed look at the structure of a continent and the seismicity across North America ever.

  • IODP: The international ocean discovery program (IODP) has revealed an immense volume of information about the Earth's past through ocean sediment and the structure of the ocean crust.

  • Kola borehole in Russia: Mostly because it was the deepest drill hole ever, reaching ~40,000 feet (~7.5 miles/12 kilometers).

  • Mapping the mid-ocean ridges: The work in the middle of the 20th century into the present to create highly detailed maps of the seafloor, especially the mid-ocean ridges, launched us into the age of plate tectonics.

  • Daily coverage of the planet's surface from space - including LandSat, Terra/Aqua, GOES, Planet: 25 years ago, we wouldn't know about eruptions happening in distant, uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean unless a ship just happened to be nearby. Now, we can see minute changes on the planet as they happen.

All of these have been ambitious projects that offered us something new and daring (although not always successful, like Project Mohole).

But how could we top these? What insights into our planet could grab the attention of everyone (not just us Earth scientists/nerds)? Let's speculate!

A probe into an active volcano

There are a number of volcanoes on Earth with active lava lakes. Could we develop an autonomous drone that could be dropped into a lava lake and travel downward into the plumbing system of the volcano? We could observe or measure directly the conditions within a volcano that is actively erupting. On the flip side, remember that lava is much more dense and viscous compared to water ... and a little bit hotter, right? How would we retrieve the data being collected anyway? In any case, this really gets into the dreams of Jules Verne and journeying into the interior of our planet.

A State-of-the-Art New Ship for Drilling into the Ocean Floor

Much of our knowledge from the IODP comes from the work on the JOIDES Resolution, a massive research and drilling ship. However, it was built in 1978 and is close to retirement after over 40 years of service. Yet, no funding has been identified yet to replace the ship with a state-of-the-art drilling ship to continue its work. The Resolution can drill multiple kilometers into the ocean crust while parked over ocean depths over 5 kilometers. A new ship could be designed to potentially drill into the mantle where the ocean crust is thinnest and, more importantly, keep up the work started by Resolution and Glomar Explorer.

Real-time Map of Plate Motion at the Meter-Scale

We know the planet is dynamic -- that's thanks to plate tectonics. Yet, many of the ways we measure change involves either interpreting the evidence of past motion or using locations that have GPS stations to give us point data. Could a method be devised that combines earth observations from orbit, GPS and InSAR (synthetic aperture radar) or LIDAR to show constant, minute motion? It would likely involve massive computing power to churn the data, but it might allow for a much more nuanced evaluation of stress and motion in the Earth's crust.

A Global EarthScope

The EarthScope project across North America was a massive success. The next step might be to spread EarthScope globally across all the continents. Then comparisons could be made between continents. We could then be able to think about creating a 3D map of the Earth's crust -- once we also add an ocean-floor version of EarthScope into the mix.

Drilling into a Comet, Asteroid or Moon

We've made some baby steps towards understanding the primordial stuff of the solar system like comets, asteroids and moons. We've even retrieved materials from a few, but mostly by just literally scraping the surface. What would we find if we land on the salt mountain of Ceres, the ice of Europa, the surface of Titan and start drilling? Journeys into the interiors of these objects might reveal what so many people hope to find (life?) but even beyond that, getting insight into just what is inside would be worth the investment and risk.

Earth Scientists on Mars

Maybe the best goal is to make sure that when we leave our planet, Earth scientists are some of the first to make the trip. Mapping and directly observing another planet like Mars or visiting our Moon would not only unlock secrets of those places, but also give us more insights into our own planet. Even if the goal of some of these missions might be colonisation or resource, we will need a strong foundation in the geology of wherever-you-are ... and although we don't know if any of these planets or moons have life, we know they all have rocks.

I realise that it takes a lot of money, political capital and time to get projects like these to happen. However, without these kinds of "big dreams," sometimes you can get trapped playing around in the margins. Human advancement has been driven by scientific curiosity and risk-taking. Creating an environment where all scientists can do this -- or at least suggest wild ideas for exploration -- should be the main goal heading into the middle of the 21st century. Without it, we'll be left to follow the paths forged by people who might have other ideas in mind for our future.

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