Sparking your imagination to start 2024
By Ben Iannotta|January 2024
The mark of a well-told story isn’t just the information it provides; it’s the thoughts it provokes. Several stories in this month’s issue were especially strong in that regard.
My takeaway from our cover story on the planned Mars Sample Return mission was that, alas, artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t solve all our problems. Physics, it seems, is physics, when it comes to fully analyzing samples of Martian soil and rocks for evidence of past or present life. Sometimes a large instrument or facility is the only thing that can answer a question, and those would be difficult if not impossible to set up on Mars. At least, that’s where things stand now. I suspect there will be more to say on the topic of in situ research versus bringing samples home. The history of science is replete with feats that once seemed impossible. As the Ingenuity helicopter showed, there is no shortage of innovation among Mars scientists and technologists. Now, the question is whether and how that ingenuity can be marshaled to make Mars Sample Return affordable. Like you, we’re anxious to see how NASA’s review of alternative architectures turns out.
On the topic of astrophysics, who better to opine about the way ahead than former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin? Nearly three decades ago, he pushed his agency and outside scientists to set a daring scientific agenda and design for the “Next Generation Space Telescope,” now the James Webb Space Telescope. Goldin’s commentary (“Bolder than Webb? ‘You’ll never know unless you go!’”) made me wonder a few things: Is the success of Webb something that can be replicated in space-based astronomy? Or is Webb’s groundbreaking science a result of mixing enough time, effort and dollars with a dose of good fortune that can never be guaranteed? After all, if Webb’s hundreds of deployments had not gone perfectly, where would astronomers be now? It is not a happy thought. A decision about how far to reach, technology-wise, must always be nerve-wracking for the stewards of their nations’ tax dollars.
Goldin’s piece also made me wonder whether the multidecade timeline for development of the next Great Observatory is a reflection of the National Academies having learned a lesson from Webb. Perhaps it’s better to underpromise on schedule and cost in hopes of surprising everyone by coming in on or below budget and ahead of schedule. It’s unsettling to look at history and wonder if the anticipated timeline will nearly double in length, as was the case with Webb.
In aeronautics, we took a detailed look at the first flights of Electra’s Goldfinch hybrid-electric demonstrator (“Pilot on board”), and we dug into the idea of rushing medical personnel to the scene in single-person electric aircraft (“First on the scene”). These stories made me wonder if this will be the year when any doubts are expunged about the market viability of these aircraft. The questions would then center around the degree to which they will revolutionize our lives and when.
On the topic of AI and machine learning, I’d commend you to our interview with Nisar Ahmed of the University of Colorado Boulder (“Analyzing AI”). He discusses the promise and limits of the technology in refreshingly understandable terms devoid of hype.