While Dr. Ed Cloutis spends his days teaching geography to students at the University of Winnipeg, a piece of his work and research is hurtling through space to a faraway asteroid that will hopefully give him some clues about how life began on Earth.
Cloutis is involved in a recently launched NASA mission that’s sending a spacecraft to an asteroid to collect a sample and bring it back to Earth. So far, he says, the spacecraft and instrument that he was involved in developing, are healthy. They’ll be home in 2023.
“What we’re looking at is how much of a kickstart did life get?” Cloutis says. “The asteroid is a building block or leftover piece of what formed the Earth.
“For a lot of asteroids, all we do is look at them through telescopes, so we look at how bright or dark they are, how they reflect light, and a lot of times, we can’t really tell what they’re made out of. By bringing back the sample, we can look at it and go, ‘ahh, okay, now we get it, now I can interpret what I see through a telescope with what it’s actually made out of,’ and that’s been a problem for a long time.”
Possible applications? Cloutis says travelling with an asteroid for a couple of years will help us better understand what pressures affect them. So, if one was ever coming our way, we might have a way to stop it.
“There’s that whole aspect of planetary defence, which sounds pretty cool.”
Area of research: Planetary exploration
Number of peer-reviewed articles published: 170, maybe
Lowest grade in university: D, proudly got a D
Best part of your job: Doing research with students. That’s always a rush to work with students on research projects that are really cutting edge.
Last book you read: On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks—it’s a popular science book about maps, and since I teach maps, it’s a cool research tool to have.
Most fascinating thing you’ve learned in planetary research: Probably that Mars is habitable.
Published in Volume 71, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 20, 2016)