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Advancing space exploration, advancing humanity: NASA scientist lectures at LAU

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Dr. Charles Elachi, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and chairperson of LAU's Board of Trustees, gives a presentation on "Recent Developments in Earth and Space Exploration" at LAU Beirut on March 17.

March 23, 2010—

“Why do we explore and continue to spend money on exploration?” asked Dr. Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and chairperson of LAU’s Board of Trustees, in a talk about “Recent Developments in Earth and Space Exploration” before an audience of students, academics, aspiring scientists, and LAU community members on March 17.

In fact, “exploration started to the south of us, in Tyre, with the Phoenicians who wanted to see what was beyond their horizon,” said the renowned Lebanese-American scientist. “They used astronomy and stars to see and explore the Mediterranean, and this continued through the Arab period.”

Today, telescopes based on the designs of our ancestors are being used to see how stars are formed.

Elachi, who is also vice president of Academic Affairs at the California Institute of Technology, gave the presentation at LAU’s Irwin Hall Auditorium, Beirut campus.

Although for many the concept of space exploration might seem abstract, Elachi engaged the audience at LAU by illustrating the relevance of his work to our everyday lives, with the help of a colorful slideshow.

Some images showed the striking similarity between rocks on Mars and those on Earth. In front of a backdrop of two nearly identical pictures of the rocky landscapes of the two planets, Elachi noted that both have clouds, an atmosphere, grand canyons, craters and a history of oceans. “Three billion years ago, there were oceans on Mars similar to oceans on Earth,” he said. “Why did life start here, and not on Mars? Or, did life start on Mars and get extinguished?”

Indeed, today the future of our planet Earth appears to be in danger, and the science of space exploration is providing valuable tools to help study this phenomenon.

“We’re getting more and more concerned about managing the planet,” Elachi said. “How is the environment being affected by humans and how should we shape our behavior?”

He then explained that much of the scientific research regarding the monitoring of global warming is being done with the help of satellites and other tools developed in the process of space exploration. This research includes the study of rising sea levels and the loss of ice in Antarctica, Iceland and Greenland. Due to high concentrations of populations living in coastal areas, it is estimated that one third of the world’s population, including Lebanon, will be affected by rising sea levels.

Through satellite systems, researchers are also studying the effects of earthquakes and there is ongoing research to discover a method of predicting earthquakes.

“We have a moral responsibility to take care of our planet,” Elachi reminded the audience.

He added that perhaps the most immediately relevant aspect of the science of space exploration for our daily lives is the mobile telephone, an invention that came about because of satellite communication.

“Innovation is when you give smart people a tough set of problems,” said Elachi, crediting the willingness of the United States to invest in science and innovation for its strong economy. He added, “Now we can’t live without the internet. Progress comes from things we completely have not thought about.”

The presentation concluded with a video about the trials and tribulations of space launchings. It showed the persistence of scientists trying to design rockets and parachutes, with several failed attempts and in the end, achieving success. This is something Elachi says is important for the students to strive for.

“There’s always a high persistence in finding a solution,” he said. “Things aren’t always straightforward or easy.”


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