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Sun 17 Apr 2011 01:31 PM

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Rocket man

Top scientist Charles Elachi on life on other planets, sending humans to Mars and the Middle East’s burgeoning space industry

Rocket man
Rocket man
Elachi with JPL engineers and scientists who worked on the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity

It is summer, 1957. In the mountains near Zahle, a town in lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a small boy is camping outside, lying on his back and staring at the stars. Later that year, the same boy overhears on his family’s portable Zenith radio the eerie metronomic pulse being sent out by Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite, which shocked the world when the Soviet Union launched it that October.

“I was always fascinated looking at the stars,” Charles Elachi tells me. “I was always wondering if there were other people on some of those planets looking back at us. And when I heard Sputnik, I remember saying to myself: wow, you can really put things in space - that would be cool to work on. But I never knew at that age that I would end up where I am now.”

At some point in August next year, an Atlas V rocket will deliver a special package to the surface of Mars. It will be the first-ever precision landing on the Red Planet and will contain ‘Curiosity’, a planet rover about the same size as a car. To put it in perspective, Curiosity is around eight times as big as ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’ – the two current Mars rovers — and has a correspondingly bigger role. Whereas Spirit and Opportunity are effectively robotic geologists, Curiosity is a robotic chemist, with the ability to heat samples and see what kind of material is being emitted. Its mission? To attempt to find out — once and for all — whether life ever existed on Mars.

For Elachi, who heads up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), it is a childhood dream come true. But a successful Curiosity landing would be just one of a series of highlights in a career that has taken him from the Bekaa to Pasadena, via a significant portion of the solar system on the way. The JPL is a NASA research and development centre that is managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), fielding a hefty 5,000-strong team of scientists and researchers. Its goal is to build and operate all planetary spacecraft; in short, it is the agency that oversees all space exploration beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Small wonder, then — given the importance of his role — that Elachi was named the 7th most influential Arab by this magazine in 2011.

Elachi’s journey to the JPL is almost as fascinating as the Mars missions themselves. By being awarded the highest marks in Lebanon’s national baccalaureate exams at high school, the budding young scientist was sponsored by the government to study anywhere in the world to complete his college education. He chose the Ecole Polytechnique — France’s finest university — where he completed an undergraduate degree in electronic engineering. After casting around for a location to undertake his PhD, he chose California: “I thought that was close to Hollywood, that would be a nice place to go,” he says.

That decision proved to be fortuitous; at the time, Elachi was unaware of the connection between Caltech and NASA, but the move proved to be the springboard that would catapult the young scientist into the heady world of space exploration. It didn’t take long before Elachi started working at JPL part-time while he completed his studies at Caltech.

“The first project I worked on was to send a mission to Venus with a radar instrument to map the planet,” Elachi recalls. “Because of my background in physics and electromagnetic theory, that required that kind of expertise in my PhD. That mission actually took place 20 years after I joined JPL — things don’t happen that quickly sometimes. The mission was known as Magellan and that mapped Venus in the early 1990s.”

In the 1970s, Elachi spent time working on projects a little closer to home. His PhD expertise helped him land a role as the principal investigator putting radars on the Space Shuttle, which was then used to carry out archaeological mapping of areas in the Middle East.

“We carried out a lot of climatology mapping of the deserts in Egypt and the Empty Quarter, which led to the discovery of channels under the desert, reflecting the old days when rivers used to exist in the Middle East — up to thousand years ago when the climate was much more amenable,” he says.

That work – now conducted by fellow Arab-American scientist and “good friend” Farouk El Baz – may well have some practical applications for a thirsty region.

Fast forward to the present time, and the US is about to embark on its busiest period ever for sending out planetary missions. Aside from Curiosity, which will launch on 26 November, two other projects will blast off from Earth during summer and autumn, headed for different parts of the solar system.

First up is a mission called Juno, which is destined for Jupiter, containing an instrument that will probe the giant planet’s atmosphere using microwaves to see what is below the vast clouds that swirl across its surface.

“All the missions so far have basically given us a general idea about the outside of Jupiter, and we also had a probe during the Galileo mission which went to the top of the clouds,” Elachi explains. “Now we’ll be able to probe deep into Jupiter, and that will tell us about the original composition of the solar system.”

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In addition, JPL is also spearheading the GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), which will blast off for our own Moon this summer. That will also probe deep inside the Moon, trying to work out whether the satellite has a liquid or solid core. Those three missions — in a very small nutshell — amount to JPL’s projects for this year, as well as the Cassini-Huygens project, which is currently studying Saturn and its many moons.

Now for the really interesting stuff. What’s the long-term plan for space exploration? When will a man land on Mars? And is there really life anywhere other than our planet?

Elachi says that the agency is focusing on three main areas. The first is to continue the exploration of Mars by having long-term continuous surface stations, that will be able to remotely go out, collect samples and conduct experiments.

“The other major area is to look for life on outer planetary satellites like Europa [one of Jupiter’s moons], Titan [Saturn] and Enceladus [also Saturn],” says the JPL director. “We believe all of these have oceans below the surface, and the question is whether life could have evolved in those oceans.”

The third area involves using telescopes to look at neighbouring stars, to see whether they have planets similar to Earth encircling them. JPL recently launched a mission called Kepler, which has so far detected almost a thousand planets around other stars, although it has not yet found any that match Earth in terms of size, temperature and atmosphere.

And what about human space exploration? “Most of these robotic missions are precursors, which can help us understand how we can send humans,” Elachi says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that in the next 20-30 years, we’ll be sending a human to Mars. There is a lot of debate about the next step – should we have a station on the Moon or should we go to asteroids before we go to Mars.”

The scientist points out that the journey to Mars is currently a two-year round trip, which raises all sorts of logistical problems about the amount of food and water any mission would need to carry, not to mention what would happen if astronauts fell ill. “If we can shorten that journey to six months, that could make a huge difference — that’s the goal in the next 30 years,” he says. “Maybe we need a lighter capsule, and maybe we need to look at ways of living on the land. So if we found water on Mars, we could try to use that for astronaut consumption, and to break it up to create oxygen and hydrogen, which we could then use as fuel for rockets coming back to Earth”.

One area of technology that the JPL team is currently focusing on is electric propulsion, so instead of using chemical reactions as a form of propulsion, the capsule will instead take gas, ionise it, and then place it in an electric field. That forces the gas to be exhausted at extremely high speed, allowing for much larger objects to be propelled much faster towards their target. And this is no pipe dream; JPL is currently overseeing a mission codenamed Dawn, which is right now using this technology for the first time to propel a probe towards Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the Inner Main Belt.

It all adds up to a tremendously exciting time for space exploration. Closer to home, Abu Dhabi has earmarked $1bn for a space centre, and Saudi Arabia is also developing a space research institute. However, it’s still early days for the Gulf.

“In the US, we have made an investment over 52 years and NASA’s budget is about $19bn — here at JPL we have a budget of around $1.5bn, if that puts it into context,” says Elachi. “I think the Middle East has potential, but if they work in collaboration with places like the US and Europe, they would be able to leverage the experience that exists in other countries.

“There are smart people in the Middle East, but they need to be given the opportunity — like I was in the US,” he adds. "There are also financial resources, so it’s a question of the education, training, infrastructure and collaboration. The possibilities exist - but it’s also a case of the political will required to push them forward.”

Despite his astonishing career in the US — which saw him named alongside luminaries such as Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Frank Gehry in a 2006 list of ‘America’s Best Leaders’ — Elachi says he still retains extremely close ties with the Middle East. He has family in Lebanon, and also visits the Gulf frequently to fulfil commitments to universities here. Aside from his duties as chair of the Lebanese American University board of trustees, he also has key advisory roles at both the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, and the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dahran.

“Each has a board of 12-15 people — all people like myself,” Elachi says. “We give advice about curriculum, research, faculty and so on — and I find that enriching for me, and also helping back the Middle East.”

It’s all a long way from the hills that surround the Bekaa Valley, but the world will be hoping that Charles Elachi’s career still has many miles to travel.

Elachi on…human exploration

“One key [to allow humans to travel further and faster] is electric propulsion — so instead of using chemical reactions, like we have traditionally done — we are taking gas, ionising it and then putting it in an electric field. That allows the gas to be exhausted at extremely high speed — and allows us to move much heavier masses much faster to the target. There is a mission called Dawn, which is heading towards Vesta, one of the largest asteroids. It will get there in two months — and that is using electric propulsion for the first time. We need much more powerful electric propulsion systems before sending a human.”

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