How bullet holes in Beirut buildings led to a discovery about Bennu
In uncertain and challenging times, it's easy to get bogged down and succumb to a sense of despair. Sometimes, it can be helpful to hear stories from people who have gone through much worse, only to come out stronger. Ronald Ballouz, a postdoctoral research associate in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is an early-career scientist who came to the University of Arizona to work on the OSIRIS-REx mission. He spoke with Lo Que Pasa about how growing up among shot-up buildings in a war-torn country shaped his interests and outlook on life and his passions, and even inspired an exciting discovery on asteroid Bennu.
What is the focus of your research?
In my research, I try to understand the physical mechanisms that might change the surfaces and interiors of asteroids. This work is important for interpreting the physical and chemical properties of meteorites and returned samples from missions like OSIRIS-REx. The questions that really drive my curiosity are, one, how is the origin of life on Earth tied to the delivery of water and organic material by asteroid impacts, and two, what is the present impact threat from asteroids to Earth's biosphere. In addressing these questions, my research may also reveal important clues for understanding the development of life outside our own solar system.
What prompted you to choose to study asteroids?
I went into university with my head filled with this dream about uncovering something fundamental about the universe. After my undergraduate studies, I realized that I wanted to work on a problem that was a bit closer to home, a bit more tangible. The universe is big, so, to me, doing planetary science and studying things in our cosmic "backyard" was how I tried to reel things back a bit. Asteroids are probably as close as you can get to something that looks like a "backyard." They're mostly giant sand and rock pits held together loosely by gravity. The idea of studying these things that were so familiar and yet also so alien really struck a chord with me.
You grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. How has that experience influenced you as a scientist?
I grew up in Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War. Most of the buildings in my neighborhood, including the one I grew up in, were riddled with bullet holes. They were just a part of the background for me, and I didn't think much of them when I was young. Obviously, when I saw similar features on Bennu's boulders, it immediately clicked in my head that these little impact pits must have a similar origin. That connection with my past really drove me to try and uncover as much as I could about what I was seeing in the images. In general though, growing up in Beirut instills two strong things in a person: toughness and passion. As a scientist, you need those things to push through ideas and persevere.
Why is it important to study asteroids?
When our solar system was young, before the formation of planets, there was only a disk of dust and gas surrounding the young sun. This dust and gas started to gather together due to their own gravity, and they formed objects that were about the size of the largest asteroids we see today, or smaller. These asteroid-sized objects, which we call planetesimals, then merged to become the planets. Asteroids are the leftover building blocks of that planet-forming process. On large planets and moons, geologic activity, like volcanoes and tectonics, and impacts by asteroids, erased evidence of that early history of the solar system. Asteroids are too small to be geologically active at the same level of planets and moons, so they've preserved that evidence. We study asteroids, in part, to understand the time in cosmic history before the Earth was even born. They help us understand how we got here.
Is there anything that attracted you to the University of Arizona in particular?
I came to the University of Arizona to work with the OSIRIS-REx mission, and the Lunar and Planetary Lab is really a world-renowned institute for planetary science. I've also really fallen in love with Tucson in general. I've been here for two years, and I'm still not over how gorgeous the mountains look at sunset. I first visited Tucson for a conference in October 2014. During one of the evenings, I decided to just wander around town on foot, and eventually found myself walking into Time Market for a coffee – though to me, a tourist, it wasn't yet the Time Market (a popular University-area eatery). It was a mundane evening, but the feeling of warmth and coziness I got from the peacefulness of that night stuck with me for a long time.
What do you like to do when you're not measuring impact pits on boulders?
I have a 2-year-old daughter who takes up most of my time when I'm not doing science. In the precious hours I have between her bedtime and mine, I like to read books – I'm currently reading about the history of coffee, bake bread – I aspire to make a cheddar jalapeño loaf as good as Barrio Bread's, and fall asleep in front of the TV with my dogs.