Tuesday, 21 September 2010

View from the Press Room - EPSC Day 1

The Angelicum Centre, the venue for EPSC 2010
We've had a busy couple of days at EPSC.  Yesterday (Monday) began with two opening ceremonies.  The first was an opportunity to showcase Europlanet activities.  A lot has happened in the past year, with a particular highlight being the field trips organised to planetary analogue sites - places on Earth that resemble other places in the Solar System.  You can find out more about the visits on the Europlanet outreach website: http://www.europlanet-eu.org/outreach/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=261&Itemid=2

During Opening Ceremony No.1, Jean-Pierre Lebreton (the man behind the Huygens probe, the mission that holds the record for touching down on the most distant planetary body to date - Saturn's moon Titan) presented the inaugural Europlanet Prize for Public Engagement with Planetary Science was awarded to Jean Lilensten. 

Lilensten is a real inspiration in the outreach community.  He has spent over 10 years developing an aurora simulator called the 'planeterrella'.  The idea came from experiments at the turn of the last century by a Norwegian physicist called Kristian Birkeland.  Not only has Lilensten developed a robust portable version of Birkeland's kit, but he has adapted it to show the different kinds of aurora that are generated at large gas giants, as well as smaller planets like Earth.


The Planeterrella. Credit: Cyril Simon
Lilensten has brought the planeterrella to Rome and will be sharing the magic of auroras on Thursday with the public and students at the Faculty of Engineering at the San Pietro in Vincoli of the Sapienza Università degli Studi di Roma.  On Friday, he will be on site with the planeterrella at EPSC, hopefully inspiring a few more of the planetary community to think about sharing their enthusiam for their subject with the rest of the world.  One of the things that made Lilensten the outstanding candidate for the 2010 Prize was his generosity in sharing the plans for the planeterrella with anyone who wants to make a copy.  Hence, planeterrella will soon be finding their way into science centres and museums across Europe (a copy will soon be on display at the Palais de la Découverte in Paris and others are under development in the UK, Italy and Switzerland).

Opening Ceremony No. 2 was a celebration of EPSC's arrival in Rome.  Europlanet's head, Michel Blanc, as well as Jean-Pierre Lebreton and Manuel Grande (EPSC's co-ordinator) all pointed out that Europlanet owes it's existance to the Cassini-Huygens mission, many parts of which were led by Italians.  Our host institution in Rome, the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), has done an amazing job in organising the conference and making everyone feel welcome.  Maria Teresa Capria, chair of the Local Organising Committee (and co-ordinator of Europlanet's Virtual Observatory activity, IDIS) is owed an enormous debt of gratitude (and from the Press Room, we should also thank Livia Giacomini, who has done an amazing amount to help us make sure that the fascinating science discussed at the conference reaches a much wider audience in the public and the media).

 
The Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA
And then, the science started flowing.  Unfortunately the press officers don't get to go to many of the talks, however, we have read through each and every one of the 918 abstracts submitted for the meeting!  Our main stories for Monday were:
- A new golden age of sailing in space, where solar sail-powered 'data clippers' would carry vast quantities of high-resolution data back from heavy-weight missions exploring our Solar System.
- The first Mars observations by ESA's Herschel Space Telescope.  These give some intriguing insights into the martian atmosphere.
- Evidence is mounting up that the martian moon, Phobos, formed in orbit around Mars out of debris from a catastrophic impact with the surface of the Red Planet.

It was a long and tough day.  However, there appears to be lots of interest in the meeting from the outside world, so it is all worth while.

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