Tuesday, July 11, 2017

State of the Blog (2016-2017)

The members of TEPS and our guests at the Université de Montréal in June. This year saw enormous growth in our program, something very satisfying to see as an author of the proposal and as a member of the team!

It's July and that can only mean one thing, here at HTWT: time for the annual State of the Blog update! Unlike last year, I did manage more than zero posts with 8 in all. I also kicked off a new Blog for my lab over at http://york-pvl.blogspot.ca/ which has had 33 posts describing life, research and teaching amongst my students and trainees. The content over at our new location has been rather good and some of the posts have been very popular - in all we've had about 2,600 visitors over the year, not a bad start at all.

The big news over the last year will be no surprise to our regular readers. To my utter shock and amazement I published an article in Nature. If you talked to me a year ago, I would have thought you crazy to suggest that such a thing could happen. But this business is full of surprises. I won't spill much digital ink rehashing the experience (but if you want to rehash, by all means click for my description and background commentary) other than to say that I'm pleased that I can still learn new things about the business of getting science published despite having been doing planetary for 14 years. It was also very nice to be honoured by York University as a Research Leader for 2016 as a result.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Come and Learn the Art of Exploration

The author takes a selfie with the Curiosity Rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one building over from Curiosity's Mission Control where he worked during the summer of 2012. We hope to give those who attend our event on May 27, 2017 a taste of what running a space mission like Curiosity is really like.

Last year I was fortunate to be successful in my bid to secure an Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation Early Career Researcher Award. In addition to allowing me to expand the Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)-related work that we do in my group, this particular award has a youth outreach component that we're about to roll out for the first time. I think we've put together a really interesting day if you want to get an idea of what it's like to do real planetary exploration. I know that my team and I are really looking forward to sharing our enthusiasm with those students who join us on Saturday, May 27!

Some of you may have navigated to this post in order to get more information on the event, so this will serve as exposition. Over the course of six hours, from 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM, we hope to give you all a little taste of what science-driven mission design is like. The "science-driven" component is important because, where space exploration was at one point focused purely on pushing boundaries (what we call "footprints and flags"), the modern version has an animating purpose in mind, and that purpose is the science that is returned. Think of it as the difference between John Cabot's "Matthew" and Charles Darwin's "Beagle." We will start with how you select a landing site before describing how you go about equipping a robot for the journey and then how that robot is operated on another planet to actually accomplish science goals. In each case, it will be you and your fellow students who make the choices.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Banner Conference

While twitter is going somewhat crazy over Jake's videos, especially the gravity wave one, this one is my favourite, not only for the patterns in the clouds, but also for the shadow cast on the foothills of Mt Sharp. While this development was the most unexpected success of the group at this year's LPSC, it was far from the only event that made this a conference to remember.

I've just returned from 2017's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held this year, as every year, in the Woodlands, Texas. No matter which way you cut it, this year's conference was a tremendous success for PVL. That's not hyperbole, despite the fact that LPSC holds a special place in my own Planetary Science Education (the 2004 edition was where I realized that I wanted to be a planetary scientist) and it's an excuse to spend a week in 25C+ weather in the middle of March and meet up with old friends from graduate school.

There were a few things we knew coming in would make this year a banner year and a few surprises that heightened the experience.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A surprising, serendipitous turn of events - the making of a Nature Paper

My new favourite planet (don't tell Mars!). This post tells the story of how the Nature penitentes paper came about. A previous post described our findings in plain language. I must apologize in advance, the length really got away from me on this one. But I hope the tale which follows is instructive for other early career folks in the planetary sciences (and other disciplines) who have a flash of inspiration that leads them towards high-impact publishing and who are not already members of science teams.

If you have to blame someone, blame Geoff Languedoc*.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Penitentes on Pluto

Though not posted until after the embargo clears, I'm writing this post over the winter holidays out in Gander, NL. It's plenty cold, snowy and icy, but far too windy and humid for Penitentes to form here! The image above was captured by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera on the New Horizons Spacecraft in July of 2015. The image shows the Tartarus Dorsa region of Pluto which has been sculpted by the sun into a regular pattern of icy blades.

This post is intended to offer up a few details about my recent article that appeared online in the January 4th edition of Nature. You can navigate to the paper itself using this link and the York and NASA/APL press releases are also linked.  Because Nature articles are very information rich, I was thinking that an unpacking of my recent article might be helpful to some of my readers out there. Note that how this article came to be may be the subject of a separate but related post which I'll post once things calm down a bit. Instead, this post focuses on the content of the paper and you can read more down underneath the cut.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Week Amongst the Alps

Combining two facets of my work - an animation of the Siding Spring Comet as seen from MSL in October of 2014 (It's the fuzzy thing which translates across the frame, keeping with the images). Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about the cometary dust that you can see here, rather than the dust in the martian atmosphere - my usual topic of study.

I've been to conferences all over the US, Canada and Western Europe. But never before have I attended an invitation-only conference. I've now had this honour, having just returned from the International Space Science Institute's Cosmic Dust Workshop, which was held in Bern, Switzerland over the past week. I was invited Andrew Schuerger, a convenor, friend and frequent collaborator of mine. Never having done this kind of conference before, I was unsure of what to expect. But I knew that regardless of how things went, that I would learn something new. Plus, Switzerland is rather pretty this time of year and the weather was nice.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Summer of Public Speaking

I won't deny it, I enjoy giving public talks about my science. Not only is it fun, but it also serves the cause of informing the public about exactly what it is that we do in planetary science and exploration and gives my research funders a good return on their investment. What more could a public servant such as myself want? I try to accomodate all the talks that are requested of me, but the summer is always easier to schedule than are other times of the year, so often you'll stand a better chance of hearing me when the weather is warm.

A Triumphant Return to the Radio

It's good to be back even if no one will be throwing my return a ticker-tape parade, such as the one pictured above for the Apollo 11 lunar astronauts (as photographed by Bill Taub for NASA's human space flight gallery ). With apologies, I just couldn't resist the spaceflight reference!

After a hiatus of nearly 4 years, I have decided to make Astronomy.fm (AFM) a regular part of my life again. Those of you who are avid listeners of YorkUniverse may have detected my dulcet tones twice over the last few months. I was a 'guest' of the show before graduating to 'co-host' last month and tonight I'll be co-hosting again this time with the master himself, Paul Delaney. Over the coming months you can expect more of the same. With luck I'll be able to inject my usual dose of planetary and spacecraft know-how into the discussion. It will be fun and informative! I hope you can join us.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A New Blog: PVL

Earlier this month I welcomed a 3rd member to the arcticsaxifrage blogging family. As some of you may already know from clicking on my profile over on the right, I've got my professional blog right here as well as a second blog where I review science fiction. To that I'm adding one more, but here's the catch - largely I won't be the author!

Instead, york-pvl.blogspot.ca will talk about the work going on in my laboratory, the Planetary Volatiles Lab (PVL) here at York. As I indicate in the introductory post, the forum will be contributed by students and trainees in order to give them experience in writing for a general audience. There's good potential here for benefits all around, I think.

If you are curious what you'll find, there will be posts about our science and engineering (though don't expect us to give away our secrets pre-publication!) as well as posts on process (What is it like to write your first paper; to give your first conference talk?) and on interesting things going on in planetary, from a student perspective (i.e. what a fantastic paper in last month's Science!)

Through this new forum I hope that you will get a taste for what it is that we do, why we do it and how we do it. You'll also get to know a whole new cast of characters. However, it will be a moderated forum in which I have reviewed and lightly edited the content - so don't expect too much drama.

I hope you'll join us, and will cheer on my students, many of whom are writing this kind of content for the first time!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

State of the Blog (2015-2016)


This past year was all about expanding my boundaries . I wrote my first sole-author paper about some simulations of water moving on the Moon (a new body of work for me, scientifically speaking) and I teamed up with Ray Jayawardhana (Dean of Science here at York) to propose a $7 Million training program that brings together planetary scientists, exoplanetary astronomers and instrument designers. The program, which was selected, is called TEPS: Technologies for Exo/Planetary Science. It's going to be an exciting six years, as we ramp it up!

It finally happened. I've gone a whole year without posting once! I could use the usual excuses - (I've been busy!) - but the fact of the matter is that I just haven't felt that itch which is satisfied only by posting. Certainly, I've had plenty to write about, as you'll see below, and I'm actually coming around to the idea that it would be good for my career to talk more about my work and what my team is up to here in this space. But motivation is key, and that capital has all been allocated elsewhere this past year.

I went a bit crazy with grant applications and did quite well. Perhaps buoyed by my six papers from last year, everything I wrote in 2015 ended up being funded. I'd love to tell you all about it, but granting agencies have the right to announce successful applications and I respect that.

My success in the funding realm has led directly to a substantial increase in group size. Last year at this time, we were 1 Undergraduate, 1 PhD, 1 MSc and 1 PDF. Today, we have 5 Undergraduates, 6 MSc students, 1 PhD and 2 PDFs. While I am feeling the growing pains of that increase, it also means that we can research so many more things simultaneously! Indeed, our projects have proliferated to the point where there isn't a body in the solar system over 900 km in diameter which isn't the subject of someone's project.

Friday, August 28, 2015

State of the Blog (2014-2015)

A Swarm of accepted Papers, including two companions describing cube-sat micro-probes at Jupiter in IJSSE (and as pictured above in a simulation from co-author Isaac DeSouza).
It has been a banner year for publications!
So, here we are again - another year gone and a busy one at that. The entire pulse of six papers I submitted last year were ultimately accepted which saw my list of first author papers expand to 14*. Meanwhile, the predictions made by my GRL paper about Siding Spring were verified. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are a Mars-orbiting spacecraft) Siding Spring settled down substantially, coming in on the too quiet to be detectable for organic dusts side of the equation rather than the "Meteor Hurricane" that was predicted by early modelling. I find it fascinating that some comets flare so large while still so far away from the sun, but in that respect, Siding Spring is hardly alone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A big day for Planetary

 The last approach image taken by New Horizons before closest approach. As the planetary community waits with bated breath for tonight's downlink, we consider this sparkling new image - the best view yet of the furthest object from our sun yet observed by spacecraft. Pluto, a world in its own right, no matter what label we put on it.

Like many of my colleagues, I got up early this morning to witness an event billed as the "completion of our initial reconnaissance of the solar system." Just before 8 in the morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the New Horizons spacecraft - our very first New Frontiers mission - made its closest approach to the (now) Dwarf Planet Pluto.

From an outsider's perspective, I can imagine that one of the most puzzling aspects of this event was the very non-event of it. Sure there were scads of folks with tiny American flags counting down and cheering at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD. The NASA brass was there too - Charlie Bolton, the Administrator himself, was giving interviews along with the other principals and there was a media circus of lights and cameras.

But really, the action was rather remote. There was no confirmation of success via satellite, no breathtaking images poping up on the screen. Despite the atmosphere feeling much more like a spacecraft landing than a pure flyby, it stands in stark contrast to the three landing events in which I have participated, even Huygens landing on Saturn's moon Titan.

And how could it not? Pluto, out beyond the orbit of Neptune is over 4.5 hours away by radio wave, and, no doubt, the team doesn't wish to waste precious minutes near close encounter slewing the spacecraft away from its prize to transmit what they have seen so far back to earth. Even if they did it would be after noon when they arrived. Later still as, certainly, after all this time, New Horizons will have sufficient discipline programmed in to collect togther the best of the best before sending back home for us tonight.

Thus the true celebration will take place later today in a worldwide event called Plutopalooza. I will be participating in the York University Astronomy Club's edition. This morning's event was instead more about having a picture of cheering scientists to go with the morning press, and also a meetup for the true believers. Perish the thought, but we don't yet know how things went. While there is joy, and perhaps a bit of relief that the time of encounter has finally arrived - I can tell you from experience that it is tinged with a hint of sick anticipation still. That won't be dispelled until tonight.

But as we wait for word from the spacecraft, we have a beautiful new picture to wonder at. Anticipating the need to fill that data vacuum, the team held back their best approach image which I have reproduced at the top of this post. It shows the feature now famous around the world as "the Heart" and a surprising range of coloration across the surface. It is almost as if the dwarf planet is streaked with paint. But the coloring agent here are different volatiles - likely some nitrogen, methane, ammonia and other trace compounds.

Unfortunately for a planetary scientist like myself, we already know that the atmosphere will be thin. Pluto is several decades beyond perihelion now and is headed out towards the far part of its orbit. But what remains on the surface was likely forged, at least in part, during those 'warmer and wetter times.' In fact, the red coloration led to Bolden describing Pluto as "the other red planet."

But all references to Mars aside, Pluto is indeed its own world with its own fascinating geology. The image above doesn't give the whole picture, but it is clear enough for us to know that the close encounter images will reveal many different processes operating on the body and competing with each other to leave their mark on its surface.

We had a hint of this. Neptue's moon Triton (pictured below) is thought to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object, and was far more active and more varied than had been suspected from previous telescopic observation. Here there were frostier areas littered across its vaguely reddish surface and the enigmatic cantaloupe terrain (at upper left) which might be tectonic. Dark streaks cut across the surface of the body, the remnants of nitrogen geysers erupting out into space driven by a solid state greenhouse effect. Could this perhaps be the source of the darker "Whale" terrain to the left of Pluto's "Heart?" Both bodies have a bit of a mottled or scalloped appearance, especially in the interfaces between different terrain types. This is also seen in other sublimation driven landscapes, such as on Comets and the "Swiss-cheese" terrain of the Martian southern polar cap.

Not surprisingly, there are also differences between Pluto and Triton. While they share a similar coloration, likely as the result of similar processing and similar composition, in other ways they are unalike. The bluish-greenish frostiness near the terminator on Triton does not have a clear analog, at least not in images captured thus far. For its part, Pluto also has significantly more dark terrain on its surface and more crater-like features. For much more than that, we will have to await this evening.

New Horizons is the first of the New Frontiers Missions (Juno is NF2 and Osiris-Rex is NF3). Meant to be more responsive than a Flagship, yet better funded and more complex than a Discovery-Class mission, it's impressive what we've seen so far and I can't wait to see what's yet to come from this new class of exploration mission.

Oh, and for those of you just coming upon the field - not to worry about that "completing the reconnaissance of the solar system" remark, there will be plenty of exploring left to do. Mariner 4, the first fly-by of Mars, revealed only a moon-like cratered highland. This is certainly not how we think of that planet today. Mariner 10 saw less than half of Mercury's surface - a map that was not completed until 30 years later by Messenger.

Even after New Horizons, a good chunk of Pluto remains in darkness. While we're unlikely to be back within the next few decades, perhaps even within my lifetime, who knows what mysteries might be lurking there? That's the thrill of planetary, and it's days like today where we finally fill in the map a little bit more which makes this area of such great interest to me.