Emily LakdawallaMar 07, 2011

The 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC)

Science is all about asking questions, coming up with ideas that might explain the answers, and then poking at those ideas to see if they work. Scientists spend much of their time in solitary research working out those ideas. But they also devote big chunks of time to meetings where they pitch their ideas and see what their peers think of them. These meetings can be of any size, from hallway discussions with researchers from your own institution to gargantuan assemblies of thousands of scientists.

LPSC 2011
LPSC 2011 Image: LPI

One of the biggest meetings in planetary science every year is the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute near Houston, Texas in March. It's a five-day meeting with four parallel talk sessions and two evening poster sessions, focused on planetary geology -- the composition, structure, present activity and past history of the solid bodies of the solar system from the big stuff like Earth and Mars to the small stuff like presolar dust grains. I try to go to LPSC every year, but couldn't attend this year, so I will be trying out a few things to cover it remotely.

Fortunately for those of us who can't make it to Houston, there are more blogging and Tweeting scientists now than ever before, who are taking online notes about both the oral presentations and the hallway conversations. John Moores (@arcticsaxifrage on Twitter) attended the LPSC opening reception last night (about which Luke Dones remarked "I haven't seen a crowd like this since I went to see The Who."). The reception is usually a festive affair full of reunions of old friends, and the first place where conference attendees can "take the temperature" of the currents moving in planetary geology. John reported on his blog that " Something's in the air here in the Woodlands, and it's not pleasant." The talk of the night was details that had been leaked from the NASA Planetary Decadal Survey, details that made the scientists at LPSC "nervous and unsettled." If what the Space News story says is true, the Decadal Survey recommendations will "thrust a dagger into the heart of flagship missions." Read John's blog for more details, and tune in to the Livestream of the Planetary Decadal Survey Briefing at 15:30 PST / 23:30 UTC tonight to see how true all of this is.

Since I've gotten some questions about it, I will add that the "cyanobacteria in meteorites" paper that's been getting some Internet buzz was also a general topic of discussion. Science journalist Richard Kerr remarked that there is "general distress and disgust here at LPSC over Hoover's meteorite microfossils. [And] one half-serious suggestion of burning him in effigy."

The politics are scary, but today's science is still exciting. There are numerous people Tweeting as I write from the Monday oral sessions (look for #LPSC or #LPSC42 hashtags or just follow this handy list from @kidpixo), although they seem to be fighting with each other for wireless/cellular access. This morning's oral sessions were about the Martian cryosphere (that is, the layer of ice that exists below the surface, analagous to Earth's groundwater); studies of the isotopic composition of the most ancient materials in the solar system; discoveries and telescopic studies of asteroids, including the latest results from WISE; and the way atmospheres are built from volcanic gases. In the afternoon, there's a session previewing MESSENGER's mission at Mercury (orbital insertion is in 10 days!); one on achondrite meteorites; one on asteroid geophysics; and one on the formation of our Moon.

I've got lots of emails out to see if I can get some updates from conference attendees on interesting discussions from today's sessions. Stay tuned!

The Planetary Fund

Your support powers our mission to explore worlds, find life, and defend Earth. Give today!