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London Lecture: Space rocks, rockets and robots - Exploring our Solar System today and tomorrow

12 April 2017
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The Geological Society, Burlington House, London
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Humans have been fascinated with the night skies since antiquity and have utilised technology to aid in the study of the stars and the planets since the days of the first mechanical celestial computers used by the ancient Greeks and the first telescopes developed by Galileo.  Today our exploration of the Solar System continues to benefit from cutting-edge technologies in a diverse number of fields.

Since the late 1700s the study of meteorites has provided numerous insights into the formation and early history our Solar System.  We are able to determine the physical and environmental conditions that were present over 4.5 billion years ago and the chemical building blocks that provided the starting materials for everything in the Solar System as we know it today, including our own Earth.  These amazing discoveries have been made using some surprising cutting-edge techniques, many of which were not initially developed for the study of meteorites……

Today’s voyages of discovery utilise robotic explorers to investigate the Solar System remotely. Since the dawn of the space age numerous missions have been launched, to the extent that all the planets (and many of their moons), the Sun and smaller bodies such as asteroids and comets have been visited.  In a few cases, these robotic missions have landed on the surface of Solar System bodies and carried out a number of scientific investigations.  In just a handful of cases, these missions have also returned precious samples to Earth for study using the full array of ground-based instrumentation.

As we look to the next stage of Solar System exploration, scientists and engineers from a number of different space agencies and space faring nations are planning for further ‘sample return missions’ to asteroids, the Moon, the moons of Mars and Mars.  These are complex missions to design,  develop and build and are not without risk. However, these missions will lay the foundations for the next frontier of Solar System exploration via human spaceflight missions.


Dr Caroline Smith is Head of Earth Sciences Collections and Principal Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum. Her experience and expertise in curation and planetary sciences has been recognised by the award of an Aurora Fellowship from the UK Space Agency and leading work with industrial, academic and international space agency partners studying and planning for future Solar System sample return missions, including those to Mars, Phobos, the Moon and asteroids.

During her career, Caroline has studied a wide range of different meteorite types and her main research interests are planetary differentiation and extraterrestrial and terrestrial alteration processes.


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