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2012 Annual Science Report

NASA Ames Research Center Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

EPO Activity: Astrobiology Offered as Graduate Course

Project Progress

A graduate-level astrobiology course at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the Earth and Marine Sciences Department continues to be maintained by UCSC and the Ames Team. Taught by Astronomy Professor Greg Laughlin, the course gives a broad-based introduction to the various facets of the field of astrobiology.

This year, Greg Laughlin and a Science Channel TV crew visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park and used the Speed Bump ride to illustrate the concept of gravity assist in outer space. The TV crew approached Laughlin and the amusement park to shoot an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” hosted by actor Morgan Freeman. The episode, titled “Can we outlive the sun?” is expected to air in the show’s fourth season in 2013.

“In billions of years, the sun will get so bright and luminous that life on Earth will be in big trouble,” Laughlin said. “To preserve life forms, humans would have to find a way for Earth to move away from the sun by expanding the orbit.” That’s where asteroids, gravity and the amusement park’s bumper cars came into play.

Using a metal reproduction of the Earth, a yellow beach ball for the sun and a red magnet, Laughlin and camera operators rode bumper cars, circling their miniature solar system to mimic asteroids. (Figure 1) “You could cause our planet to slowly expand its orbit by having asteroids flying by the Earth hundreds of thousands of times,” Laughlin said. “This is what I’m showing when I’m driving around our little Earth with my magnet.”

According to Savas Georgalis, director of the Science Channel series, working with scientists like Greg Laughlin on a visual that’s both accurate and attractive to a mass audience is the heart of all this.

Demonstrating the Many Facets of Astrobiology

Astronomy professor and Ames team member Greg Laughlin works with a film crew at an amusement park to illustrate the concept of gravity assist in outer space.