Saturday, October 8, 2011

Deceased--Michael J. Drake

Michael J. Drake
July 8th, 1946 to September 21st, 2011

"Michael J. Drake, Planetary Scientist, Dies at 65"


Paul Vitello

October 2, 2011

The New York Times

Michael J. Drake, a planetary scientist, worked on many NASA space missions in his lifetime. But he remained devoted to one idea that he proposed several times in the last decade and that NASA officials rejected twice: to send a spacecraft to an asteroid, take rock samples from the surface and bring them home to study the origins of life.

The expedition finally received NASA’s approval on May 24 after a grueling two-year review process, during which Dr. Drake continued working despite receiving a diagnosis of liver cancer and undergoing liver transplant surgery.

His exhilaration about the go-ahead sustained him as his health declined in recent months, and it kept him involved in plans for the mission’s 2016 launching “to his last breath,” said his wife, Gail Georgenson. He died on Sept. 21 in Tucson. He was 65.

Dr. Drake, the head of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, was a leader in the field of extraterrestrial geology. He studied lunar rocks, meteors and the moons of Saturn. He helped map the surface of Mars and was part of a NASA team that detected the presence of ice below the Martian surface in 2002.

But Dr. Drake, like many planetary scientists, considered asteroids the most promising frontier for exploring what he described in his writing as the “big picture questions.”

In an interview shortly after NASA announced its decision to finance the asteroid mission, which is dubbed Osiris-Rex, he listed some of the questions he hoped it would help answer: “Where do we come from? How did we come to exist? What’s the origin of the organic material that provided the building blocks that led to life?” he said.

Asteroids are considered the original stuff of the solar system — leftover scraps from the cataclysmic nebula collapse in which the solar system was formed 4.5 billion years ago. They were relatively untouched by collisions and other events that might have incinerated the surfaces of larger bodies like the planets, changing the molecular structure of their original terrains. A sample from the surface of an asteroid might prove (or disprove) one of planetary science’s big emerging theories: that the Earth was scorched and barren until it was “reseeded” eons ago by asteroids.

“We already know that amino acids exist in space, and we find them in some meteorites: chipped-off asteroids that strike Earth,” Dr. Drake said. “We believe it’s the sort of stuff that came in through the Earth’s atmosphere and provided the building blocks of life.”

“The asteroid is literally a time capsule of 4.5 billion years,” he added.

Michael Julian Drake was born on July 8, 1946, in Bristol, England, to Betty Eileen Mary and Allen Drake. He graduated with a degree in geology from Victoria University in Manchester and received his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Oregon.

After postdoctoral studies at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., he joined the faculty of the University of Arizona in 1973. He met his wife and remained in Tucson for the rest of his life.

Besides his wife, he is survived by their two children, Matthew and Melissa; a granddaughter; and his father and sister, Lisbeth, of East Sussex, England.

Along with colleagues, Dr. Drake worked on the Cassini mission to explore Saturn; the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer aboard the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which first detected Mars’s ice; and the Phoenix Mars Lander, which landed in 2008 in search of Martian water and microbial life.

The NASA asteroid mission, which will cost $800 million, is basically as Dr. Drake proposed it: a spacecraft will travel to an asteroid known as 1999-RQ36, a rock about the size of Grand Central Terminal somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. The trip will take about four years. Robotic devices on the spacecraft will take measurements, photographs and readings, then scoop about two ounces of material from the asteroid’s surface to be sent back to Earth in a capsule, which is scheduled to land on the floor of the Utah desert sometime in 2023.

A secondary but not insignificant goal of the mission, as Dr. Drake designed it, will be figuring out how the trajectory of an asteroid like RQ36 might be changed if it ever happened to be heading in our direction.

Two criteria were used in selecting RQ36 as the mission’s destination, Dr. Drake said. The asteroid seemed from telescope studies to be rich in carbon and other elements found in organic compounds, making it a good candidate for testing the life-came-from-a-meteor theory.

Second, the path of RQ36’s orbit put it on a course for a possible collision with Earth in 2086. (NASA calculates the chance of that as one in 1,800.) Measurements taken by the spacecraft will help determine what kind of human-sent shove or bump, in the worst-case scenario, might keep that from happening.

On the day NASA announced its plan for the Osiris-Rex mission, an elated Dr. Drake summed up its scope. It would be about nothing less than “the origin and destiny of humanity,” he said. “The ‘origin’ is ‘Where did the organics come from that led to us?’ The ‘destiny’ is ‘Will we go the way of the dinosaurs?’ ”

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