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Baylor's Planetary Research Group aims to answer questions beyond Earth

Researchers looking at Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the Moon
Posted at 7:48 PM, Nov 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-18 23:11:33-05

WACO, TX — Dr. Peter James is a geosciences professor at Baylor University and the founder of Baylor's Planetary Research Group.

He is no stranger to exploration or discovery. In 2019, his research team discovered a mysterious gravitational mass on the Moon's far side, which garnered national attention.

"The planetary research group at Baylor University is a group of scientists who try to study what's inside other planets, and that's hard to do because it's hard enough to look through a telescope and see a distant planet," Dr. James said. "But that's just the surface, and so to see what's inside, you have to use data from spacecraft trajectories."

According to Dr. James, the process is a spacecraft flying around something, like along the Moon's orbit. That spacecraft will get thrown off slightly by any subtle changes in gravity.

"Gravity is caused by extra mass, so we can use that to try to figure out where inside the moon there are places with more mass or less mass," Dr. James explained. "And so one of the things that we found was that under the Moon's largest crater, there was more mass than we would have expected to find in the mantle."

The unexpected mass discovered by Dr. James' team was roughly five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii.

"There are a couple of possible explanations, but one of the more compelling in ones is that the large meteorite or the large asteroid with a lot of iron in it that struck the Moon to make this big crater deposited some of its iron deep in the mantle, not shallow enough for us to mine," said Dr. James.

Now the Baylor professor has shifted his attention to Mercury in a collaborative research effort with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"So about a decade ago, NASA sent its first-ever spacecraft to orbit Mercury, and using a lot of the same techniques, we can look at the trajectory of that spacecraft around Mercury," Dr. James said. "And we're finding completely different things about the inside of Mercury."

He says they've already discovered concentrations of mass inside Mercury that perhaps have something to do with how the mantle moves.

"We haven't quite figured that out yet, but that's that's another peculiar planet that is mostly made of metal," he said.

Still, fascination with the Moon is abound as it ever was, says Dr. James, in part because of its role in ultimately delivering astronauts to other planets within our solar system.

"The space station is the first step in going there, and then from the space station we'll branch out and send astronauts back to the Moon after that," he said.

With the NASA's SpaceX Crew-1 arriving at the International Space Station this week, the possibility of seeing astronauts one day reach other planets is a very realistic goal, one we could see in this lifetime, says Dr. James.

"With rocket tests happening in McGregor with SpaceX, that is the end goal. NASA and SpaceX and Blue Origin want to go much farther out into the solar system with astronauts, and I think that's going to happen in my lifetime," said Dr. James.

Until then, Dr. James says the Planetary Research Group will keep searching for answers in worlds and planets beyond our own.

"For our research is we have a motto, "Aim for heaven and you'll get Earth thrown in," he said.

For more information on Baylor University's Planetary Research Group, visit here.