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 (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, 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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Onwards and Outwards

Above: Steven Oleson's concept of a Titan submersible combines two of my favorite ideas for future space exploration in our solar system. Below, the polar layered terrain of Mars as revealed by HiRise is a record of past climate just waiting to be read. The story it tells has significance not just for Mars, but perhaps for the Earth as well.

Spurred on by reporter Matthew Francis, I have recently got to thinking about where in the solar system I would most like to send a space mission if budget were no object. My comments with Matthew made it into an article in Slate which was also picked up by the National Post here in Canada. But there's only so much you can say in a newspaper or magazine article. 

Instead, exploring this topic this seems like excellent material for this space, and you can find my own personal top four below the cut. By the way, I can't forget adding a thank-you to JPL Engineer Keri Bean, currently working with the Dawn mission (though she has shown an affinity for Mars in the past), who recommended me to Matthew in the first place!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A New Term with New Tools

 A new textbook of my own design awaits my Planetary Science students this fall!

I've got to say, as much as I've enjoyed the last 8 months of research, I am looking forward to the coming semester of teaching. Once again, I'll be the course director for PHYS 3070: Planets and Planetary Systems and also for PHYS 4120: Gas and Fluid Dynamics.

This will be my first time teaching a class for the second time, and that means that I have the opportunity to fine tune my course organization and lectures. While both courses went well last year, there is room for improvement which will hopefully be appreciated by the dozen or so Planetary Science and 20ish Fluids students.

Friday, August 15, 2014

State of the Blog (2013-2014)

 A cropped version of Jerusha Lederman's artwork that appeared in ScienceNOW. This artwork was originally commissioned by CRESS for the cover of GRL which accompanied my article on Comet Siding spring. This is the first time my work has ever been given the cover of a publication!

Those of you out there (if indeed anyone is left!) may have noticed the substantial downtick in blogging over the last year or so. Instead of the more typical every other week activity, this space has essentially gone dark with two exceptions. While one of those exceptions, describing how to make a petrographic microscope from easily obtained materials, has proven to be rather popular there is no arguing for a relative lack of published activity in this space.

Largely this is the result of two factors. The first, discussed when I got this job back in 2012 and finished up my first term, is that in some ways I feel a bit more constrained than I once did.

The second and more important is that the fraction of my brain available for dreaming up posting topics has decreased. The most surprising thing to me about being a professor is in how many directions you are simultaneously being pulled. Between applications, collaborations, committee work, teaching, administration and keeping on top of the projects and division of labor between students my thoughts tend more towards the temporal these days. That means that my prime creative hours - on the bus into York and in that time before my colleagues and students arrive at work - are now largely spent putting out fires via email or trying to get ahead of the deluge.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How to make your own Petrographic Microscope

Note the colourful chondrules as viewed under cross-polarized light. Such views are used for mineral identification and demonstrate the interaction of light with real-world samples. You too can make your own petrographic microscope! Here's how...

Here at York, as we welcome our newest class of students, we're taking a few minutes to pause and start thinking more about our recruitment efforts in the future. One question that comes up often is how we can stand out in a sea of power point presentations. The solution - to try to be a little more hands-on by bringing in some props to illustrate some of the principles behind our work. To that end,  some of us have come up with little inexpensive demonstrations that capture a lot of what we do here in the Earth and Space Science and Engineering Department. Look for these at university nights at high schools everywhere in the coming months!

For my part, I put together a little, inexpensive rig that gives students a taste of a few different themes. Basically, you could call it the poor man's petrographic microscope. It presents a neat little introduction to some interesting optics with serious engineering applications as well as some earth science. By using meteorite thin sections as my specimen, I can springboard into planetary science and spacecraft and how we can use simple techniques to learn a great deal from the materials we encounter in our exploration.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

State of the Blog (2012-2013)

In some ways the last year since the 201-2012 state of the blog has been very quiet, certainly there have been relatively few posts. But in other ways, under the digital surface, it has been one of the biggest years yet for me! From the landing of MSL to my hiring by York University, it has truly been a year of monumental changes. Yet, my daily routine has changed little (well except for the added mechanics of teaching, granting and committee work) - I still head into York on the 196 and try my best to learn a bit more about the planets and how to unlock their secrets each day.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Surreal Summer

 A photo I took of myself last summer in Pasadena, CA while working on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission which appears on the cover of today's St. John's Telegram. Can you tell that I'd been doing Mars Time for a whole month by that point? In some ways, this summer has been almost as surreal as last summer.

It has been a long slog of a summer, but today there's a fallish tinge in the air here in Toronto and I can feel the semester beginning to creep up on me once again. One thing I never really grasped about this job when I took it was how many different components there are to being a prof.  I will admit that I was certainly aware of each of those things but not of how much time they can eat up, collectively.