The mission of the SPERO is to expand our understanding of the universe and for us to learn the place of humankind within it. Through a collegiate pan-Scotland initiative that integrates research with teaching and outreach, the SPERO will investigate the most challenging problems in planetary science while educating students to become creative and influential members of society.
Within recent years Scotland has accumulated a critical mass of world-class researchers whose focus is to develop understanding of the solar system, from planetary differentiation and habitability, through to remote sensing and in-situ exploration of other worlds, moons and asteroids (e.g., rover-deployable technologies). These like-minded scientists (from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Strathclyde, Stirling, the National Museum Scotland, the Hunterian Museum) and associated space agencies, research councils and museums (e.g., the Natural History Museum, London) have come together to form the SPERO (Scottish Planetary sciEnce Research netwOrk), an all-inclusive pan-Scotland initiative.
The SPERO promotes multi-disciplinary research, bringing together geologists, chemists, planetary scientists, engineers, astrobiologists, physicists and mathematicians to address three cross cutting themes in planetary science. These themes deal with issues of profound importance that have been pondered by scientists and non-scientists alike since antiquity:
Each science theme brings its own set of questions, and each question is a distillation of major areas of research in planetary science. Ultimately we want to know who we are, where we came from, and what the future has in store for humanity. The SPERO views ‘planetary science’ as shorthand for the broad array of scientific disciplines that seek answers to these and related questions.
Building solar systems
Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, gas mixed with dust within a molecular cloud composed primarily of hydrogen and helium (with small enrichments of heavier elements), collapsed due to a probable supernova explosion. Over the next 100 thousand years both gravity and inertia produced a flattened swirling disc of material with a newly born star at its centre. 50 million years later the centre of this protostar became so hot that hydrogen fusion started – the Sun was born. Within the swirling disc of material surrounding the Sun gases condensed onto dust and ice with the particles beginning to accrete. Planetaesimals were formed and planetary formation had begun. The planetesimals continued to collide with each other, the end result being the diverse planetary bodies seen in our solar system today. As we look beyond our solar system, we have discovered even more diverse planetary systems orbiting many other stars. If we are to aske questions about these systems we must develop an understanding of how our own solar systems was built.
Habitats beyond Earth
3.8 billion years ago the solar system witnessed a remarkable event: life began on Earth. Life initially evolved as single-celled prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria. Multicellular life evolved over 1 billion years later and it’s only in the last 570 million years that the kind of life forms we are familiar with began to evolve, starting with arthropods, followed by fish 530 million years ago, land plants 475 Ma million years ago and mammals 200 million years ago. Only 200 thousand years ago did our own species, Homo sapiens, evolve. Was the origin of life on Earth a unique event within our solar system, or has it also evolved elsewhere, maybe even beyond the confines of our own solar system in an extrasolar planetary system? Although the process of how life came to exist is not known, life as we know it probably required the simultaneous presence of organic compounds, trace elements, water and an energy source. Demonstrating that other planetary habitats are suitable abodes for life will help to elucidate the origins of Earth’s life.
The solar system hosts a diverse range of planetary environments but to fully comprehend this diversity, we require an in-depth understanding of the physical and chemical processes that exert control on planetary surfaces, interiors and atmospheres. For example, the Sun has it’s own life cycle and the changes during that cycle have profound consequences for the attendant planets. Interior planetary processes such as chemical differentiation, core formation and heat transfer are directly connected with the development of plate tectonics, volcanism. Impact cratering has shaped the surface of every planetary body in the solar system. A planets atmosphere preserves a record of volatile evolution and the interactions between surfaces, weathering and climate. Understanding the intricate balance between a planet and its environment is critical to address questions about how planetary systems function.
The SPERO aims to:
1. Define the planetary science community in Scotland and its mission
2. Provide a highly visible footprint for the community on national and international stages
3. Develop consortium level strategy for accessing research funding opportunities
4. Increase interaction/visibility of Scottish academics with space agencies (e.g., UKSA, NASA and ESA)
5. Pool resources and attract funding for development of large-scale analytical facilities within Scotland
6. Promote cross-institutional development of PhD studentships (and training initiatives)
7. Establish an annual research symposium to highlight on going planetary science research within Scotland
8. Increase academic interaction and collaboration with industry (though initiatives such as spaceports)
9. Enhance and coordinate public outreach, impact and knowledge exchange activities
The SPERO is intended to persist beyond the lifetime of a single group of researchers or a single spacecraft mission, the objective to forge a legacy that will transcend generations and thus facilitate the transfer of scientists and experience, inspiration and ideas, equipment and innovation, and passion and discovery throughout Scotland and the world. The SPERO will be visible to all through the Internet and other digital (and social) media. It will regularly stage public lectures, exhibits and events (universities, museums, science fairs, town halls, local pop-up events) aimed at delivering maximum impact on every part of the Scottish landscape. By promoting scientific excellence and vision through a united nation-wide collaboration, the SPERO hopes to capture the imagination of the country and inspire future generations to pursue science-based careers.
There is tremendous curiosity and interest in solar system exploration, which points to a deeply rooted resonance between the studies conducted by Planetary Scientists and the public. For example, in recent years, planetary science has witnessed tremendous growth in new knowledge, most of which has been covered by the worlds media: deposits of water-ice have been found at the Moon’s poles; we now know liquid methane flows on Titan; we have observed a comet colliding with Saturn scaring the planets surface; through remote sensing we know oceans exist below the icy surfaces of Jupiter’s moons; and mankind is actively exploring the surface of Mars using in situ rover-based technologies. Further, 2015 witnessed Tim Peake become the first British European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut to spend time on the International Space Station. The public’s curiosity has naturally resulted in an appreciation of the role that planetary science can play in not just capturing the imagination of a generation, but also the role that planetary science plays in fostering a scientifically aware and economically healthy nation. As a consequence Planetary Science is one of the most exciting and accessible globally funded scientific activities and therefore, the SPERO bears a special responsibility to reach out to the public and engage at all levels.
The SPERO pathways to impact document provides an outline of the mechanisms by which the SPERO scientists will engage with the public. The events part of the SPERO website also provides details of any past, present and future outreach and knowledge exchange events
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