The LIUniverse: Sailing to Mars with Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society
Was there ever life on Mars? Where can your passion for astronomy and cosplaying take you? And what the heck is a Light Sail?
To get the answer to these and other questions, Dr. Charles Liu and co-host Allen Liu welcome Sarah Al-Ahmed, host of The Planetary Society’s podcast, Planetary Radio.
As always, though, we start off with the day’s joyfully cool cosmic thing: a new ice-filled hole on Mars! Thanks to data from the Mars Insight Lander and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we know now that the disturbance that occurred on Mars on Christmas Eve of 2021 wasn’t a marsquake at all, but a meteor strike on the Red Planet. And the ice didn’t originate on the surface, but was kicked up by the impact.
And now that we’ve arrived at Mars, we might as well dive in. Sarah talks about the value of staged investigations of Mars, and why we shouldn’t send humans to Mars just yet. (Can you say contamination?) The conversation quickly turns to whether humans should colonize Mars, or explore it, at least at first.
For our initial student question, Anthony asks Sarah, “What date would you expect Mars to be habitable?” which we take to mean either, when was it habitable, if at all, and also, when will it be habitable? Sarah talks about the samples and science we’ve done with Curiosity, Perseverance and other missions to Mars, which point to Mars having been habitable 2-3 billion years ago, before some catastrophic change caused it to lose its atmosphere. As to the future? Sarah optimistically predicts we could have humans living in small-scale habitats within a hundred years, but it’s unlikely that we could ever make the whole planet habitable again.
Moving on, Chuck asks Sarah about her career. She talks about getting her degree in astrophysics at UC Berkeley, operating a telescope at Lick Observatory, and working with – and learning from – Alex Filippenko, noted astronomer and one of the leading scientists involved in figuring out the amount of dark energy in the universe. She followed her passion to the Griffith Observatory, where she spent 6 years sharing her love of astronomy with people of all ages from all over the world at the world’s most-looked-through telescope. Thanks to its location in Los Angeles, the Observatory is also one of the most frequently depicted in TV, and Chuck and Sarah swap stories about its appearance in Wonder Woman (the Linda Carter series) and Star Trek Voyager.
Sarah also shares another aspect of her geekdom: she’s a gamer and a cosplayer! She shows off the Razor Kitty Kraken 2 headphones and Carina Nebula JWST-image dress she’s wearing (sorry podcast listeners – they’re really cool!) and talks about how she “recharges her happiness batteries” by going to cons and cosplaying. Convention name dropping and Doctor Who citing ensues – and of course Chuck talks about The LIUniverse’s deep ties to New York Comic Con. Check out our two live Science of Sci-Fi panels from 2021 and 2022.
Next, it’s time for our second student question, from a different Anthony: “How does astronomy impact you as a person or the way you look at life?” Sarah’s answer is so powerful and empowering, we wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here – watch or listen for yourself! (Chuck’s response is pretty cool, too.)
Finally, Sarah talks about her gig at The Planetary Society, where she now hosts their Planetary Radio podcast, and all of the cool projects that are coming to fruition. You’ll learn about their new Member Community Digital App and the new Planetary Academy membership program for kids 9 and younger. Chuck and Sarah discuss the importance of The Planetary Society and its legacy. (For those of you who don’t know, Carl Sagan was one of its co-founders, and their current CEO is Bill Nye the Science Guy.) And you’ll find out about the Society’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission, a solar sail cubesat that was launched on the recent Artemis 1 mission and is designed for asteroid detection and planetary defense. Sarah also gives us an update on the Society’s Light Sail 1 and Light Sail 2, the first fully crowdfunded space mission in history.
If you’d like to know more about Sarah and The Planetary Society, visit planetary.org. You can find Planetary Radio wherever you get your podcasts, or on Twitter @planrad, where Sarah will be tweeting.
We hope you enjoy this episode of The LIUniverse, and, if you do, please support us on Patreon.
Credits for Images Used in this Episode:
– New ice-filled crater on Mars – NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona, Public Domain
– Artist’s impression of Mars 4 billion years ago – ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger, CC BY 4.0
– Lick Observatory in Santa Clara County, California – Thomson200, Public Domain
– Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California – Plane777, Public Domain
– Concept art for the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout mission – NASA, Public Domain
– LightSail 2’s view from orbit – The Planetary Society, CC BY-SA 3.0