Planetary scientist Jim Bell reaches for the stars – and Pluto, and Mars –while advocating for the return of big-government space programs.
Planetary scientist Jim Bell always had stars in his eyes. Growing up in rural Rhode Island, the future Arizona State University professor could hardly imagine life in the bright and bustling world of the big city. Yet through the lens of his first telescope – a classic Meade he describes as “big and bulky and hard to deal with” – Bell was able to virtually travel a galaxy of infinite wonders.
He donned a makeshift astronaut suit for Halloween, crafted model solar systems from Styrofoam and cardboard, and watched Cosmos with his parents. “I was always interested in planets and space,” Bell says. “People were driving cars on the moon when I was a kid. The solar system had nine planets and it ended at Pluto.” The young, wide-eyed Bell never dreamed his career trajectory would include missions to Mars and college correspondence with his boyhood idol, Carl Sagan. Bell’s new book, The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission (Dutton, 2015) recounts some of this correspondence and shows Bell’s hand in NASA’s Voyager mission. He also built the camera equipment for the Mars mission rovers, and has placed himself – and, by extension, ASU – in the heart of the ongoing “is it or isn’t it?” Pluto planetary debate.
Bell enrolled in Caltech’s prestigious astronomy program after completing a science track in high school, but stumbled on its heavy mathematics requirements. Like most people, Bell thought astronomy was the study of everything in space. In actuality, the field is segmented into myriad subspecialties, from geology to chemistry to meteorology. “Everybody has a different piece of the sandbox,” Bell, 48, explains. “What I’m doing is less math, more hands-on geological field work.”
After switching his major to planetary science, which focuses on the scientific study of planets and moons, Bell worked a student project downloading images from NASA’s Voyager mission for Caltech Jet Propulsion Lab scientist G. Edward “Ed” Danielson Jr. Through that connection, he was granted access to the Science Operations Room in JPL’s Building 264, where Voyager images streamed night and day. “There was no Internet and it was getting very little coverage on the news,” Bell recalls. “So if you wanted to see it you had to be in the room.” The overeager student delivered food to hungry scientists just to have an excuse to stay nearby.
Star Track: Voyager
Originally designed to study Jupiter and Saturn in detail, Voyager 1 and 2 were the first spacecraft to explore the outer planets of our solar system and journey into interstellar space.
Voyager 2 launched on August 20, 1977, two weeks before its sister spacecraft, but Voyager 1 is currently 3 billion miles farther from Earth.
Velocity Relative to Sun
-Voyager 2: 34,466 mph
-Voyager 1: 38,089 mph
Both craft are powered by plutonium-based thermoelectric generators, and propelled by liquid-fuel thrusters. Both will continue to transmit data until roughly 2025.
-Voyager 1 and 2 were the first spacecraft to carry a reprogrammable computer. “It’s primitive by today’s standards,” Bell says. Voyager has less computing power than a car key fob.
If undisturbed, Voyager 2 will pass relatively close (1.7 light years) to the star Ross 248 in 40,000 years.
Track Voyager news progress live at:
While Bell was among the first people to view Voyager’s flyby of Uranus as an undergrad in 1986, he desired a more hands-on role in space exploration. His moment came as an assistant professor at Cornell University in 2000, when he was tasked with overseeing the Pancam color camera systems on Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. For three years, Bell labored almost exclusively on the project, dropping and poking and testing the camera functions to ensure image transmission from Mars’ hostile environment. As the launch counted down, Bell says he “felt simultaneously like dancing and throwing up.”
Once the rovers settled on the red planet in January 2004, all eyes were on Bell’s team as their cameras turned on. “The first pictures came down… They were beautiful and I thought… Thank God!” he says. Planetary Society senior editor Emily Lakdawalla credits Bell’s team for ushering in a new age of interactive exploration. “Because of their generosity, the public can experience the thrill of following along with missions as they happen,” she says. Mars rover Spirit ran for six years, while Opportunity is still going strong.
Today, Bell is a professor of astronomy at ASU and adjunct faculty member at Cornell. He serves as president of The Planetary Society’s board of directors (alongside CEO Bill Nye) and is the author of several astronomy-related books. A bumper sticker on his car reads, “Save Pluto.”
Asked about the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 demotion of Pluto, Bell believes the former planet “got shafted” largely as a result of low attendance during voting. The tri-annual conference at which the voting took place was dominated by scientists in a field called dynamics, which concentrates on location. “I think a planet is anything big enough to have formed a core and a crust, to have an interesting geological history,” Bell says. “Pluto has five moons! I don’t know what these people were smoking.”
Lakdawalla disagrees. While there may be hundreds of “worlds” in our solar system, she feels the requirements for planet designation go beyond physical structure. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, for example, boasts an atmosphere and plentiful oceans. “There aren’t a lot of people who would call a moon a planet, though,” Lakdawalla says. With NASA’s New Horizons craft set to visit Pluto in mid-July, Bell and his fellow Pluto-lovers are hopeful the dwarf planet’s full status in the solar system will soon be reinstated.
Much has changed in the nearly four decades since Voyager launched. With NASA accounting for just 4 percent of government spending, the Space Race has shifted to the private sphere through projects like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Mars One. Though Bell is enamored with the red planet, he says he’ll pass on the one-way trips tentatively slated to start in 2024 (mars-one.com). “My favorite planet is Earth. Most of my friends are here,” he says. Plus, Mars’ environment is worse than the harshest desert – not exactly an ideal vacation spot.
Last year, Bell spoke to Congress about the value of government space programs. A common complaint has been that (asteroid mining excepted) these missions represent massive investments with little financial return. Among Bell’s arguments for continued funding is an idea his 12-year-old self would appreciate. “We could cancel the entire space program and it will not stop hunger or create world peace,” he says. “It will not change anything, except that we will have less vision.”
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