Sunday, December 13, 2009

Planetary Scientist, now at York University

So, I can now confirm that I have joined York University in the department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering. I have now been working for Jim Whiteway for almost two weeks on the water cycle of the Martian Arctic.

I've got to say, it feels good to be back working in Planetary Science. This topic in particular is of great interest to me, as my PhD dissertation subject was also the martian arctic, specifically, how the sun interacts with ice and dust there to provide places where organic molecules or even life could persist, and the larger problem of determining how much water is available. This is a big problem, as water is a key component for life as we know it.

However, the interactions of water vapor and the martian surface are strange from the perspective of the terrestrial climate scientist. Clouds forming close to the surface have many characteristics of cirrus clouds on the earth, as seen by Lidar analysis. But they look for all the world like convective cells:

Animate This Image to see martian clouds forming by condensing onto rising dust!

[Animation created by the author from images taken by the Surface Stereo Imager on sol 112 of the Phoenix Mision. Credit: JPL/NASA/Texas A&M University/University of Arizona. The image contains information from both the blue and red filters and has been enhanced, hence the stretched colour]

The regolith is also so dry that it sops up water like a sponge and inhibits the movement of vapor. This effectively cuts off the interaction between the atmospheric water vapor and the ice table, just a few centimeters below the surface.

Do all these inputs come together to form a habitable environment? And what do the results of the Phoenix mission have to say about the amount of water stored below the surface? This information is critical for any future mission to Mars, especially any manned mission.

I've got a year to find out, as my contract runs until December 2010. We're going to run some numeric simulations, do some lab experiments and maybe even visit a Mars Analogue site. With a little luck I'll have some interesting stuff to share with you all here and next year at DPS or AGU!

It's good to be back!

* Note, if you liked the animation above, drop by my website, for a look at all the animations of the atmosphere taken with the SSI over the course of the Phoenix Mission looking straight up (Zenith) or outwards, just above the horizon (SupraHorizon). You can see the falling snow, along with several different types of cloud, and interesting billows of dust. Happy hunting!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Year (and a month) with Environment Canada

In a few days I’ll put a piece on here about my upcoming job, however, now is a good time to look back at the year that was and the position that inspired the “Arctic” part of this blog’s URL. Last summer, during the Phoenix Mission, I was in a bit of a bind: looking for a job on short notice while working 24hour 39 minute days. Since I had already defended my PhD, my time at the University of Arizona was drawing to a close. But with the job market upset, my options for postdoctoral work were few. Through contacts, I was introduced to Jan Bottenheim at Environment Canada.

[ Our fearless leader, Dr. Jan Bottenheim. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from]

Jan explained to me that the Ocean-Atmosphere-Sea Ice-Snowpack (OASIS) section of the International Polar Year (IPY) team at EC was looking for some assistance with their planned expedition up to Barrow, Alaska that winter. It sounded exciting, and presented a chance to experience one of the most similar environments on Earth to the Mars Chamber in my lab. Since I had already been placed on the VF list by NSERC it was merely a formality to join up and I started work in November to prepare for the March Field Study.

[The Arctic Ocean, seen from the North Coast of Alaska, is not so different from the Martian vistas I am used to. The cloud in the distance is a constant feature of the open lead whose temperature, -1.8°C, is far warmer then the surroundings. Also, the bright star seen is Venus. Photo by the Author ]

Aside from myself and Jan, the team featured several experienced Arctic Scientists and Technicians. Stoyka Netcheva brought spectroscopic expertise working with MAX-DOAS systems and with Environment Canada’s heavily instrumented sled which would go Out-Over-The-Ice, named OOTI. Sandy Steffen, an expert in atmospheric mercury, would be in charge of a mercury speciation experiment and several Tekran monitors. Ralf Staebler would study data collected by sonic anemometers, a fast-ozone instrument, and atmospheric structure as revealed by a powerful sodar (audible day and night near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium Facilities). Meanwhile Patrick Lee and Andrew Sheppard helped us strive to keep everything working smoothly. As broad as this suite of specialities is, we were a small part of a larger international effort at Barrow drawing on Arctic researchers the world over.

[ My compadres in Barrow. Clockwise from Paul Shepson (Purdue University) in Green: Ralf Staebler, Stoyka Netcheva, Jan Bottenheim and Sandy Steffen. Photo by Spencer Brown retrieved from]

As for myself, I would lend assistance where it was needed and use my experience with the GARDIS mercury instruments to analyze the data to be collected by the OOTI sled. However, in the months leading up to the expedition in March, I had also been working with Jan and Paul Shepson’s group at Purdue University to develop a mobile version of their Bromine Oxide (BrO) collection apparatus. In its benchtop form, this was a system that weighed several hundred kilograms, required more then a kilowatt of power and constant liquid nitrogen to run down. By trimming this down to the bare essentials, we hoped to be able to make measurements out on extremely thin ice in the midst of frost flowers.

[ Frost flower pan: the ice here, several miles from shore, is less then an inch thick and only a few hours old. The spindly structures are called frost flowers and are suspected to be active sites for Arctic atmospheric chemistry. A pressure ridge is visible in the distance. Photo by the Author. ]

Despite some shipping snafus, almost everything arrived in close to working order. After a bit of last-minute McGuyvering, (including the transformation of Teflon snow-scoop into a high-pressure gasket using a hunting knife, amongst other adventures) we were ready to go.

Barrow, Alaska is the most northerly land in the United States. The northernmost point, located at the border between the Beaufort and Chuckchi Seas, is at latitude of 71°21’N. This far enough north that mid-winter sees a single 80-day long night. By the time we landed in late Febuary, however, polar sunrise had already occurred and the days were lengthening by ten minutes each and every day – an appreciable amount. Much of the illumination was twilight rather then direct sunshine: by the time I left to return to Toronto in mid-March, it was light enough outside to see until just before midnight.

We had chosen Barrow for this field study due to the presence of an ocean current-driven perennial open lead which guaranteed access to exposed sea water (an area known as a polynya) as well as pans of fresh first-year sea ice (called a nilas) created almost daily. These areas are of specific interest to researchers since they are especially active in the chemistry of trace gasses, in particular Ozone and Mercury. These gasses in the near-surface atmosphere play an important role in deleterious biotic processes and may enter the food chain.

As the arctic warms, periodic and puzzling “depletion episodes” are being observed in which these gasses disappear from the atmosphere. These events are increasing in frequency. Thus, for the health of the arctic bio system, it is important to determine where these gasses are disappearing to and what forms they take. OOTI would sample these gasses directly and determine the vertical flux (rate of adsorption into the frozen surface, or out of it). As well, some clues as to what is happening, chemically are offered by BrO, hence the presence of my experiment on our study.

[ Science out on the Ice. I unload the BrO Equipment on a frost flower pan. Photo by Spencer Brown. ]

Even with a warming arctic, for now, it is still plenty cold in March. On several days, windchill values at the warmest part of the day exceeded -60°C and even the shortest trips out into the field required extensive preparation. The clothing required to sustain human life out on the Arctic Ocean may well be the closest I will come to wearing a space suit.

[ Dr. Stoyka Netcheva models our expedition gear on the Elson Lagoon near Barrow, AK. The Instrumented sled in the image is OOTI. Photo by the Author ]

Initially, we stayed close to our base of operations. But over time we gained confidence and took longer snowmachine treks with the OOTI sled, leaving it overnight on the relatively protected Elson Lagoon and eventually out on the frozen sea past a hundred-foot tall pressure ridge within spitting distance of open water. We were also able to collect a full suite of BrO samples on a nila less then 1-inch thick, several miles from shore on sea ice only a few hours old.

[ Our Inupiat guide and Polar Bear Guard, Carl Kippi, keeps watch with me on top of a pressure ridge out on the Arctic Ocean. Photo by the Author. ]

Later on, over the summer and into the fall, I worked to develop a process for analyzing the samples we had collected. While we didn’t get hard and fast values in the end, we did show that the process was viable and the experiment was a success. I spoke a little of this at AGU in late May. While the lab work was satisfying, I have found that my thoughts often return to the field study, through the toil of the rest of the year.

There is a certain harsh beauty to the arctic, especially the frozen artic ocean in winter. Many researchers even compared it to the “Magnificent Desolation” of the Moon. Of course, to the trained planetary scientist’s eye, the imprint left by the wind upon the landscape is more reminiscent of Martian structures, but this is a minor quibble. It is certainly a place where the elemental in nature is front and center. Contrasting with the monochromatic world of snow and ice and cold is the explosion of colour that is the Aurora Borealis. Never before have I seen such displays; titanic energies glowing, dancing and changing colour and form in the arctic night.

[ A Swirling Aurora near the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), photo by the Author ]

There are also rudimentary signs and vignettes of life all around, if you look closely enough. Polar Bear paw prints out on the ocean (with frozen spittle and chewed intake lines on the OOTI!). Caribou out on the tundra breaking through the crust of snow to feed on previous summer’s grasses, preserved beneath. Innupiat peoples hunting seals in the open lead. Still the canvass of ice is not that different from the austere beauty of the rocky shores of Newfoundland where I grew up, or the deserts of Arizona where I studied. Each has a story to tell. All these landscapes are a part of me now, and as I move forward to new challenges, I thank Jan for allowing me to add one more to my experience.

[ The Polar Desert. Photo by the Author. ]

Author's note: Images for this post have been obtained, in part, from Spencer Brown, a professional photographer who accompanied us out on the ice. His photography, not only of the Arctic, is spectacular and his portfolio , is definately worth a visit. For more information on OASIS, please visit our website and blog at

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Phoenix Phone Home?

Now that we're finally coming out of the harsh and deep Martian arctic winter, the engineers at JPL will soon be making an attempt to contact the Phoenix Lander. Sometime in January or February (at the time of writing) the Goldstone 70-m antenna will be trained skyward to tune into the Deep Space Network, hoping for a signal relayed off of the Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). But how likely is a successful contact? And even if contact is successful, what then?

The big question on everyone's mind is whether or not the lander even survived the winter. In the Martian arctic, just like in the arctic here on earth, winter is greeted with increasingly short days and eventually the long night of the solstice. And on Mars, the winter lasts almost twice as long as on the Earth. As a consequence, winter temperatures above 60 degrees of latitude plummet to below the frost point of Carbon Dioxide. Since the bulk of the martian atmosphere is composed of this gas, it condenses out into a layer up to several meters thick. This layer is called the Seasonal Polar Cap and contrasts with the permanent or perennial polar cap which is made of water ice. You can see the progression in this series of HST images:

This seasonal cap is thought to be made up partly of a fluffy frost, but also contains thick slab ice in places. Such a deposit could mechanically damage parts of the lander, especially in more delicate places like the solar panels. Furthermore, deprived of so-called keep-alive heating in the long, dark polar night, most of the electrical components will have dropped far below their temperature design tolerances. Optical components are particularly vulnerable, as are electrical connections not rated for this degree of cold.

But this is not the worst that slab ice can do. This transparent layer can also cause severe disruptions in the underlying bed. By trapping incoming solar radiation which is readily absorbed by the dark regolith, evaporation can occur at the base. The resulting high pressure layer of carbon dioxide gas is unstable and eventually will cause the overlying ice to buckle and crack explosively. This geyser-like eruption of gas and entrained regolith is called a sublimation spider ( and if one formed near the lander it would be bad news. The lander could be mechanically disrupted, or the resulting regolith streak could cover the solar panels, leaving a till that would prevent them from capturing solar radiation once the ice sublimated away.

Our current state of understanding of the lander's condition is sketchy. While the HiRISE camera on MRO has recently obtained some imagery of the lander and area (, the contrast is still insufficient to tell if Phoenix is mechanically sound. We also won't know much more for several weeks, since MRO has been chasing a computer bug which has prevented science operations since late August.

But let's, for argument's sake, assume that the solar panels are intact and still generating power come January. What can we expect? For starters, the spacecraft will likely be hurting. Many of the instruments may be damaged, some fatally. The SSI and RAC optics may be cracked, allowing dust into their interiors. The LIDAR may also be internally damaged and unable to produce a beam or analyze the results. The Robotic Arm Joints may no longer function. MECA and TEGA may be more robust, but most of their cells are already used up, and they probably would require more power to be run then will be available in the spacecraft's weakened state. Remember that when the lander ceased communications in 2008 after 152 sols, it was not yet even northern equinox. Still, power levels and temperatures had already fallen below what was sustainable for a solar-powered mission.

Additionally, the spacecraft will be highly confused. With the cold and lack of power, it is likely that the on-board computers have rebooted countless times. Thus it is unlikely that the spacecraft has any idea what the time or date will be. Since Phoenix was the first interplanetary spacecraft designed without a dedicated direct-to-earth connection, it must rely on orbiter overflights for communicating with Earth. Each of these lasts only a few minutes every couple of hours. But since the lander has no idea where and when it is, Phoenix will not know when these overflights will occur. Thus it will start transmitting in a search pattern, saving up enough battery power to transmit, trying for contact, and then shutting back down. To make matters worse, given the high latitude of the lander, not all overflights present a good communications opportunity. Often, the orbiters barely rise above the horizon.

In the best of cases, we will make contact. But do not expect a return to science operations. While I am available, I don't expect a call from Pasadena to take up my strategic science planner's job on Phoenix again. However, that simple beep of recognition is a valuable sign, and if that's all we get, it will still be greeted by smiles and celebration. It shows that it is possible for a spacecraft to hunker down and survive at high latitudes on Mars. That information alone opens up new possibilities for exploration.

If we are extraordinarily lucky, it might be possible to get some data on the state of health, or even some SSI images. These simple command sequences, called "runouts" can be run with modest manpower as there will not be time to assemble many people before winter closes in again. Thus this represents the absolute best we can hope for. We've got our fingers crossed: here's to hoping that our baby made it through.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Matters in Academic Job Hunting

One of the most difficult things to deal with when looking for work is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing where or when your next lead will come from. With rejection letters piling up, interviews few and far between and the clock counting down to the end of fixed-term employment, things can get a bit tense. Unless you have superhuman confidence, eventually you can't help but start to doubt yourself and your abilities.

The situation is doubly worse in the midst of the so-called "great recession." Funding is tight across the board. Many public institutions in the US have been hit with double-digit budget cuts, my Alma Mater, the University of Arizona included. U of A is dealing with a reduction of 13% this year compared to last and they are far from being the worst-off (look here for a full chart: When I left at the end of 2008, the University was in the midst of a massive re-organization to save funds. Whole departments were being shuffled, shuttered, disbanded and combined to focus on core strengths and save on administration costs.

In Canada, things don't seem much better. Last fall, York University canceled a search for a junior planetary scientist. Within days, a job board for academic appointments which typically sported 50-100 entries fell to single digits where it remains (Note: as this was posted, midway through the fall hiring "busy season," there was exactly 1 ad posted on the York U site - ; Also in the interests of full disclosure, I am an unpaid visiting scholar at York).

So what's a young scientist to do? My advice: stay connected to the field, seek out opportunities to grow your craft and remember your passion.

One of the most difficult things is to remain connected to the community. Without a travel budget or student status (for grants), you may not be able to go to conferences. If you have your own money to spend here - that's great. But for those of us without that luxury, you can still participate by reaching out to other professionals, keeping up with the trade news, and especially watching the twitter posts of role models. These people have the pulse of the industry and can help direct you. This blog is, for me, a part of this process of staying connected.

Secondly, if you live near a University take the opportunity to use your PhD to gain experience. Offer to help on a field study, or at an Observatory, or in a lab pro-bono. Your high level of experience and low cost can be major selling points. Give a guest lecture or two or three! If nothing else you can get more comfortable in front of a crowd and figure out if you want to teach.

Third, go back to your roots and remember why you got into this business in the first place. Few people complete a doctorate without passion. Rediscover it. For me, this was exploring my stop and start interest in astronomical observing. If you find that fountainhead it will help give you the strength to carry on. If you don't, then perhaps it's a signal that it's time to change course.

Lastly remember that these things are cyclic. The longer slow hiring goes on, the greater the backlog of positions in need of filling will become. It's just like with the auto industry, people may be currently buying cars at a replacement rate of one per 30 years, but it won't stay that way for long since the cars they currently own can't achieve that longevity. Eventually, funding will rebound, the retirement accounts will improve for the professors who want to retire and jobs will be offered again. We may even be approaching that time with LPL recently announcing a search for three positions, amongst others.

And how you stack up against your peers for the competition lying at the end of the wait will depend on what you were able to accomplish in the interim.

As for myself, I admit that I was pretty down in the dumps earlier in the summer, but as I went through the steps above, I was able to recenter myself and focus on what mattered. Today I sit here writing as I consider my first concrete offer in my field. It didn't come from the 22 applications I completed this year, but instead I learned of it through the actions I spoke of above. And while it's not a permanent position, it would give me an opportunity to do good work and that's what matters at this point in my career. I've not yet decided if I will accept, but I hope to be able to tell you all about it next week.

Monday, November 2, 2009

330 Minutes in Montreal

Another interview and another fleeting journey, this time staying within Canada! I do have to hand it to the timing gods, however, there was just enough time to get in on the first train of the morning (leaving on the first subway to get to Union) and head out on the last train of the evening back to Toronto. Even a few taxi hijinks on the 112 only reduced me to being on-time. I even had the chance to pick my wife up her favourite picante truffle from Premier Moisson.

I've now had four interviews, and I am definitely getting to see a complete spread in hiring practices. I've done all day long marathon interviews, and 45-minute panels. I've flown over oceans to extol my qualifications, and answered questions over Skype. I've been greeted with completely free-form questioning (i.e. "let's talk about a subject") and very structured formats. The behavioral ones are always a bit tricky, and I have to wonder how much of this other scientists have seen.

Still, I hope that I have acquitted myself well. I've received some good feedback and I'm grateful to all of those who have given it to me. I've also received a first offer to consider - but that's a topic for another post.

P.S. I've fallen off the wagon a bit recently in terms of updating, but I've been stockpiling some good ideas. Now that I have some more time to devote I hope to catch up, so look for some more essays in the coming days and weeks!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The End of Planetary Science?

A couple of months ago, an agency colleague of mine asserted to me that planetary science was a dying field and that I should branch out. This has been repeated to me several times since by others. This is not a comment I took lightly, sitting as I am here at the start of my career. We all want to be on the right side of history; it’s much better to be around for the start of a grand enterprise then to represent the last of a dying breed. Thus, I needed to think carefully on my response to this comment, and decide for myself which way to go.

A good start is to clearly lay out what Planetary Science is. A good definition might be the study of bodies not large enough to initiate nuclear fusion, typically located around a star. Thus it is an interdisciplinary field existing conceptually between Earth Science and Astronomy. Strictly speaking, the study of the Earth is a sub discipline, but in practice, it tends to be split off. But this distinction is somewhat fuzzy. As we learn more about different bodies, especially those that are more earth-like, the study of these bodies is taken up more and more by Earth Scientists. Thus while few would argue that the study of Jupiter and its satellites are the domain of Planetary Science, the study of Mars is to a increasing extent seen as within the realm of the Earth Sciences. This implies that Planetary Science inhabits an unstable border which moves along with our understanding of the solar system.

At first blush, Planetary Science seems to be doing fine. There is no shortage of quality research with planetary science discoveries being reported in prestigious journals like Nature and Science. Even trade journals, like Icarus, typically have over a hundred papers in press and hundreds more under review. There are certainly plenty of people in the field, as indicated by record turn-outs at conferences, like the signature LPSC (Lunar and Planetary Science Conference) which recently upgraded to a larger venue in part to accommodate the ever swelling ranks.

However, there is a bit of a darker side that belies the tenuousness of the field. This can be seen in geography. The vast majority of planetary scientists are found in the United States where many are supported by a single lifeline: NASA grants and missions. This can make life somewhat precarious. For instance, many of us know of someone who had a job offer cancelled or postponed a few years ago when NASA made the decision to halve the funding to a single program in Astrobiology. When the outer planets granting segment was threatened, there was an uproar.

Making matters worse is the glut of young planetary scientists which have come on the market in the last ten years or so. A string of mission successes in that time – pathfinder, Galileo, cassini, MER – got many people interested in the field. Many universities opened dedicated planetary science departments or tacked a ‘and planetary’ designator onto their earth sciences department to deal with the inflow. The result is a swelling of the ranks with 3000 scientists signing on to planning white papers for the recent decadal survey.

In most times this would be a good thing. Green shoots suggesting that the field is a growing one. However, with the economic crisis in full swing and NASA in full introspection mode, everyone’s funding is in question and many missions are being put off. MSL slipped 2 years, and the future of Mars science after it is hardly secure. The outer planets are in even worse shape, given the long timescales required for the transit of spacecraft. While Cassini looks forward to a successful campaign through 2018, and New Horizons will reach Pluto in 2015, future prospects are far from bright.

So what’s a young PhD to do? Two suggestions have been made to me. First, I could broaden my field, go into the earth sciences or astronomy formally so that I would be a part time planetary guy. This is a common solution; many of the Canadian “planetary scientists” I know are really atmospheric physicists or engineers or geologists who happen to take on a planetary project every now and then.

Or I could double down on my investment, do all that I can do to find a job and hold on with hopes for happier times ahead. But in the process, I would risk that if that job ends there won’t be another place within reach for me to jump to.

I won’t pretend that I’ve made a decision, but I know which way I’m leaning. Nothing in life is without risk and we can only make the best choice with the information we have at the time. I feel like I should make the best use of my skills while they are in demand, and keep on following my dreams as far as I can take them.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers – A Commentary on the Augustine Report

The much awaited report by the panel tasked by US President Obama to provide a Review of the U.S. Human Space Flight program will have to wait a few more weeks. However, a 12-page summary is already available (you can read it for yourself here: The reaction to the report seems mixed and spans the gamut from describing the options presented as too expansive, just right or too conservative. Some of this is described here: or for a slightly more detailed version try

There do appear to be a few things that are widely agreed on. The first is that no matter what we do, there will be a gap in the ability of the United States to transport personnel to orbit. Since the committee is assuming a baseline additional two year slip in the Ares-1 program, if it is selected, this gap would be of order seven years. Second, under the current budget, the time required to obtain sufficient heavy lift capability to return to the Moon stretches out a very long way into the future, and may not even be ultimately feasible. Thirdly, de-orbiting the ISS in 2016 potentially poses a significant risk to US international participation in future space endeavours.

However, the current baseline is achievable without these delays with a modest increase in NASA’s budget from the current $17.6 billion to around $21 billion. That level of increased funding would also permit other options for exploration as well. Whether that money is forthcoming is yet to be seen. The house committee on Science and Technology seems enthusiastic enough; however, NASA’s long term budget was cut earlier this year by the democrats and expected additional funding from the Bush administration for the original Constellation program in 2004 never arrived. So whether these moneys will be provided are anyone’s guess.

Let's delve a little more deeply into the summary report itself. The meat of the report is table 4-1 which describes five different ways forward some with several sub options. The first is the program as-is, the second extends the life of the ISS out to 2020 and replaces flights to LEO with a commercial option. However, if that $3-4 billion is added, additional options become available. These can be used to increase the rapidity of the Ares program (Option 3) to put it back on track, extend the ISS life with a commercial options while doing the same (4A) or closing the gap in human space flight by recertifying the shuttle out to 2015 (4B). Additionally, and most excitingly, option 5 moves past the paradigm of heading first to the moon by considering various ways in which the current program and technology can be leveraged to expand NASA’s role beyond earth orbit and into free space.

While the job of the panel was simply to list alternatives on which the White House and Congress will ultimately decide – and Dr. Augustine refused to endorse any one option – I suspect that the committee’s heart belongs mainly to option 5. They talk about how it would be possible to achieve firsts in free space at a rate of about one per year, visiting lagrange points, earth crossing asteroids and the moons of Mars without the kind of funding increase that a full Mars mission would require. These are, in other words, the types of missions that inspire people to go into science and engineering and dream of being astronauts.

I think that this is the kind of program that I can get behind. The moon, while it might be interesting and worthy of more research is a place we’ve already been. Building a base there is a laudable goal, but can wait. Either way, it does seem clear that NASA’s future lies outside of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Hence, the committee also highlights supporting a commercial presence in LEO for all options except the program of record.

Former Administrator Griffin has spoken out against this proposal by stating that the commercial space industry is still nascent and has a long way to go before it can provide safe, effective transport to LEO. He’s right – but not because of a lack of technology or ingenuity, but for lack of a bankable reason to develop that capability. Thus in the same way that the airline industry grew thanks to subsidies for air mail delivery, challenging private industry to take up the transport of crew to LEO and the ISS would spur forward the development of this capacity quickly.

Ultimately, this change could be the greatest benefit of a slightly redesigned program. By commercializing LEO, launch costs could be reduced and the space industry stimulated. This would pay dividends to any space travel initiatives, and holds out the possibility of eventual affordable commercial flights to LEO for ordinary citizens. Once individuals have had that experience, I doubt that support for further expansion into space will be hard to come by.

As I’ve said in the past, ultimately what it comes down to is a question of purpose for NASA. They can move progressively onward and upward, ceding the ground where they have sown the seeds of development to private industry. Or, they can fall back and get out of crewed spaceflight, concentrating their resources on cheaper robotic exploration. Or they can do nothing and continue the current trajectory of chipping slowly away at the agency until only enough funding remains to keep the engineers and scientists employed and the lights on in the NASA centers.

We can and should do better. So I’ll be watching the full report and the reaction to it closely. For as difficult as it might be to change horses in mid stream, it’s more dangerous still to risk all that the agency has built over the last fifty years in planning for the future. I think the Augustine panel understands that and I think there's a good case for optimism going forward at this point.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

120 hours in the Netherlands and a Review

Since this is, at least in part, a chronicle of my job hunting efforts this seems a good time to provide an update and to reflect back upon the summer's job search efforts. This will be helpful in gearing up for the fall blitz, since that is when most permanent positions and postdocs are advertized.

The summer was largely a quiet time for applications compared to the spring months and the rate at which I applied to positions dropped off somewhat. As I mentioned this was not unexpected. Nevertheless, I recieved three invitations for interviews including one in Boulder, Colorado and another in the United Kingdom. To cap off the summer, I was invited over to the Netherlands for an interview at the end of August.

Each position was very different from the others; one was a permanent staff position working on a specific space mission with some postdoctoral aspects. Another was a more classic purely limited term postdoctoral position working with returned data. The last was a permanent agency position doing some science, but mainly facilitating future space missions and the efficient and effective acquisition of science.

Given my experience, all of these positions are of great interest to me. But all have subtly different styles for interviewing candidates. The staff position was the closest to a traditional academic interview entailing an 8-hour, day long interview which focused on my technical competency alone. Another interview took place via Skype. The agency position was a two stage process with a telephone interview followed by a 45 minute in-person discussion focusing on my technical, communication and leadership competencies. This last interview was my first experience with that Engineering stalwart, the behavioral interview and I think that I learned some good lessons which I intend to apply to my preparation for future interviews.

Each of these three interviews was also a deeply valuable experience for me since they gave me a picture of the different working cultures and academic experience across three countries. I am familiar with the fiercely independent American experience from my graduate days. But the Europeans have a different, perhaps more collegial style which may have grown out of the necessity of forging alliances amongst so many different states with different interests in Space. I can't help but feel that each one of these experiences provides a little piece of the puzzle for my future career. Each different, but interlocking and necessary for my success.

While I have yet to hear back from any of these positions, I look forward to the feedback I will receive. It will make me a better interviewee, and highlight for me where I need to work hard to close any gaps in my experience.

Looking forward to the fall, I can already see a few positions that are of interest. One of these is a teaching position at a small liberal arts college. I believe that this is something I would like as well, since I can impart the knowledge that I have gained over the last ten years to students just starting out on their personal Quests.

But for now, I'll leave you with one image from the Netherlands. My wife and I took this picture of a kite we brought along with us to fly on the beach, as I relaxed and gathered my thoughts on the day before the interview. Never before had we been able to let the string out to its full length, but here in Noordwijk assisted by the on-shore breeze, the kite flew higher and more steady then it ever had before. Let's hope that's a good portent.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Geoengineering: Terrestrial Terraforming

A topic that comes up often when considering the long term human exploration of Mars is the concept of Terraforming. Quite literally, terraforming describes direct intervention of human beings to modify the climate of another planet to make it more like the surface of the Earth. This makes a great deal of sense; it’s much easier to explore, build cities and carry out the daily business of living if the surface is warm, radiation levels are low, and the atmosphere is thick and breathable.

Of course the closer you start out to Earth-like conditions, the easier this process is. Terraforming Triton (a moon of Neptune) or Mercury, for instance, would be almost impossible. Even though Mars is just about the best candidate for terraforming in the solar system, it would still require an unprecedented industrial intervention and some creative solutions. Despite this, Mars is unlikely to be the first place where the human race practices terraforming. Instead, we most likely will first try terraforming the Earth itself.

This process goes by the name of geoengineering, but the goals are familiar to anyone who has ever planted and nurtured a garden. The goal is not to maintain your particular patch of ground in its pristine, primordial state, but to mould a viable mini-ecosystem of your own design. To that end gardeners routinely do things like add chemical fertilizer, spray for pests and introduce new species some of which do not even exist in the wild. If part of the garden grows poorly, it can receive special attention. If a particular plant thrives excessively and threatens to overtake the whole, it can be pruned back.

Sometimes gardening is done for pure pleasure, but other times it comes out of necessity. Removing dry overburden in forests reduces the fire hazard. Controlling the types of plants living close by can help reduce the number of pests or the ease of spread of disease. It can also be the means by which a resource is protected, such as in Japan in the late 1600s when silviculture began as a way to preserve and ration the use of different kinds of wood.

This last point brings up the subject of a closed environment. If the Japanese had had easy access to wood from abroad, they likely would have not have taken such stewardship of their own forests. Like late 17th century Japan, the Earth is itself an island in the solar system for which we need to take up environmental stewardship. Human beings have proved capable of changing the climate through our activities and we need to be careful how we wield this power.

But this doesn’t mean that the Earth, its surface and its inhabitants need to revert to some primal, wild state. Instead we need to evaluate the current state of the planet, how it is changing, and how we would like it to be. Since the costs of global warming will potentially be high, it is important to mitigate this risk. But reducing our CO2 emissions may not the only way to prevent a warming of the surface. Recently, the Copenhagen Consensus and others have begun examining the possibility of using technology on a large scale to counteract the effects of global warming. You can read their most recent report here:

In this report they comment on the viability of inducing cooling changes to the Earth’s climate system, including the wide dispersal of aerosols (which can affect the amount of sunlight striking the surface both directly and as condensation nuclei for clouds) as well as capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. One danger here is that the Earth is a complicated system and so the feedbacks resulting from the implementation of any of these ideas is not necessarily well understood.

But this sort of positive mitigation is politically attractive and some of the ideas are very intriguing. For instance, if you were to convert CO2 from the atmosphere into biofuel for a vehicle by using a process powered by a renewable source such as solar energy, such a vehicle would be carbon-neutral.

Either way, given that we are on the cusp of having the technological power to geoengineer the Earth, it is up to us to use this power wisely. As we know from Easter Island's example, island systems can be delicate. But we shouldn't shy away from using it and from creating the world we want to have instead of just recreating what has come before.

Further Reading: “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond has a great account of Japan siviliculture and discusses how societies who responsably take control of their environment can have good outcomes. (I should mention that “Guns, germs and steel” is also a really good read)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sunk Cost

When I was in engineering school, one of our courses was called “engineering economics.” Presumably, this was meant to help us should we quickly become managers, as so many other U of T engineers had. One of the most interesting concepts presented was the importance of a sunk cost. Specifically, that any sunk cost was worthless and that we should resist the siren’s song of trying to use something just because it was costly when ignoring it would be cheaper. The classic example was the construction of a $10 billion nuclear power plant. If on the day of its completion power could be generated more cheaply from other existing sources letting the plant fall into disrepair was the responsible option.

However, when talking about unique deployed space hardware it’s hard to make that same choice. On the one hand, continued support eats up funding that could be used to forge ahead in other areas. On the other, shuttering a program before its senescence could leave vital or unique science undone which may cost more to do later on. An excellent case is the Lunar Seismic Network, deployed by the Apollo astronauts, which was deactivated for budgetary reasons in the 1970s. The amount of money required for that project to continue was minuscule compared to what we are considering spending in order to put seismometers back on the moon.

So what then to do with the International Space Station? NASA has revealed its plans to deorbit the orbiting laboratory in 2016 shortly after it is completed. ( ) I must admit that I have never been an enthusiastic fan of the station. The $100 billion or so spent on its construction by the United States alone always seemed to me to be money better put to more targeted uses. However, now that it has been nearly completed it seems a shame to see it removed even if its utility to the Moon-Mars program is tangential at best. Not to mention that even if it became a desirable asset once again, it would be unlikely to be rebuilt given the time and the expense required.

Instead of looking at the station as a sunk cost or even a liability, perhaps NASA could view their orbiting platform as an opportunity? After all, it is a unique asset which might even be able to fund itself or become a net revenue stream, given the right uses. Perhaps an auction could be arranged – I’m sure that private enterprise might be interested in a unique research environment, manufacturing facility or even a hotel of sorts. Perhaps it would eventually give Virgin Galactic or a similar company a destination. The Russian Space Agency often takes paying tourists on board their spacecraft, so there is a market for that out there, at the very least.

The only sticking point I could see would be that whoever were to take over the property would need to be responsible for orbit maintenance. Certainly, an uncontrolled de-orbiting or a collision in LEO is undesirable. Perhaps the best plan would be a long-term lease. In that way, at worst, NASA will simply move out its plans for de-orbiting and at best provide effective technology transfer, improve its bottom line, and help the human race to take a first step off the surface of the planet outside of direct governmental action. If it proves profitable for either partner, we could be in for some exciting times!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

40 hours in Boulder

I just returned tonight from one of the World's hotbeds of Planetary Science research: Boulder, Colorado. It's here that you can find Colorado University, the Southwest Research Institute and the Space Science Institute which probably give boulder the highest per capita concentration of planetary scientists anywhere. Since this blog nominally has something to do with my search for employment, I should mention that I was in town interviewing.

While there I also had the chance to catch up with some old friends. Most notably, Oleg Abramov really did his adopted town proud, I think. In some ways the walking tours of downtown and two separate hikes (one of which was a bit of an adventure; getting trapped on top of one of the flatirons during a thunder storm) were probably representative of the place. It's certainly not the place for people who prefer to remain indoors.

I was impressed with all I saw and I would be proud to call that city my home in the future, should I get the opportunity. Maybe next time I'll have more then 40 hours to look around the place!

The view from my hotel window!

Convective cloud as seen from the front range of the rockies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pragmatism and Vision on the occasion of an Anniversary

Today is July 20th, 2009 – the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One thing I can assure you is that before the day is out, a great deal of ink will have been spilled on both looking backwards and forwards to the past and future of NASA. Childhood memories of that fateful step will abound, as will calls for a bold new way forward, or assurances that we are already on our way back to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Some may even speculate about colonization or draw comparisons between the initial exploration and ultimate return to Antarctica. But the fact remains that there seems to be no real urgency in the air. Something seems to be missing.

Like any living creature, an agency needs a sense of purpose in order to survive. This purpose is articulated through achievable and desirable goals. For many agencies and government departments this is a straightforward exercise. Each of their overall goals can be broken down at many levels into prioritized subtasks to be carried out by individual people. The organization remains relevant and current through constant re-evaluation and by pruning off side tasks. Altogether, this is a remarkably pragmatic process.

While this formula works well for many departments, NASA has always been a little different. At the start it was very pragmatic, and very highly focused on “placing a man on the moon and returning him safely” prior to 1970. But since then the ultimate goal of the agency has broadened and become more ephemeral then most, despite attempts to bring it into the realm of the pragmatic. What is NASA’s purpose today? At its most broad (2002-2006) is was: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

But what does this somewhat circular statement really mean? Is NASA a builder of rockets and spacecraft and maintainer of an elite corps of explorers? Or is it a funding agency for fundamental knowledge about the earth, solar system and the universe? Or is it an inspirational vehicle whose benefits are indirect and therefore inherently less measurable? In many ways, all three have come to apply, giving a very broad set of potential mandates which defy attempts at focus.

To make matters worse, each area is in tension, and even within each subgroup there are many disagreements. To illustrate, let me recount a conversation I had a few years back in Tucson with another planetary scientist and an astronomer. Each of us felt that NASA’s overarching goal was to explore the universe, but we disagreed about the way to go about it. The other planetary scientist felt that human exploration was critical, despite the cost, since only “boots on the ground” would inspire the next generation of explorers. At the time, I felt that shuttle launches were a waste since for the cost of each we could explore several places in the solar system robotically. The astronomer felt that we should instead be investing the money in fundamental astrophysics because it alone could answer the big questions about the universe.

If three people closely aligned in interest and profession can have this kind of debate within a single phrase of the motto, it begs the question as to whether these areas are really reconcilable. Thus, should NASA be split up?

There is certainly a good argument to be made that terrestrial, planetary and astronomical research could be conceptually accommodated under the National Science Foundation (NSF). As well, with the new Global Exploration Initiative, the way forward through 2030 seems to be largely settled and negotiated with international partners. An agency entirely focused on implementing this plan might be more effective. It would also mean less uncertainty for those of us working within the field for whom funding seems to be framed as a zero sum battle between the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the Space Exploration Directorate (SED) for limited resources.

Ultimately you have to ask the question: why does NASA even exist – why do we do this? Despite all the arguments about technology transfer, innovative management examples and fancy mattresses, it isn’t about the tangible benefits (though these are real and important). One part of the equation, still relevant even after Apollo, is national pride. We want our nation to be a leader in space, and we are willing to pay a certain amount for that. Another is the appeal of the unknown and our curiosity about it, the visionary aspect. This pioneering spirit has been close to the hearts of many Americans, even if it is not lived day to day, and is probably the reason that per capita spending on space agencies in the US is the highest in the world at about $56 per person. Compare that to $17 for Japan, $9 for Canada, $7 for Europe, and $1.10 for India.

But even the per capita funding within the United States has fallen from a peak of almost $180 (adjusted for inflation) per person in 1965 (when the federal budget was much also smaller). Why has this drop-off occurred? Paradoxically, it could be a sign of increasing prosperity on Earth combined with the decreasing novelty of space travel from which the average citizen sees little direct benefit. For instance, grand plans for cities in space from the 1960s and 1970s looked good when conditions at home were poor, but lost their lustre when things improved. “Going to work in space” may have helped people relate to NASA in the 1980s, but it wasn't long before they started to question why they were being asked to cough up $2 every time someone needs to ride the space bus. Finally, today there is very little non-governmental space industry that is viable, so there isn't a whole lot of direct interaction.

So what can an agency caught in transition do? Crewed exploration purely for the benefit of simply refining science works well for Antarctica, but may be too costly to be done off planet. Of course, this may be a good way to stimulate industry, as the return to the Moon is trying to find out. But if we want to have a more relevant mission statement then a make-work program, instead we need to use our resources to answer the big questions. It’s no longer enough to have flags and footprints and after Apollo, I’m not sure that just landing on Mars or some other piece of real estate in the solar system, exotic as it is, will be enough. We need to capture the public’s imagination if we are to justify the expenditure of so many of their tax dollars. Thus we don’t so much need a place to go as a quest of sorts. Mallory’s famous quote no longer suffices.

And what could be better then determining the role played by life in the universe? This is a theme that we all can relate to at a fundamental level. Who hasn’t wondered about their place in the world? It’s a dream that we can chase, from Mars, to Europa and Enceladus and beyond. So let’s go to these places and focus intently on getting there and uncovering the story. Let's be sure to communicate our enthusiasm to the public so that they can share in our adventure.

This idea is just one of several possibilities. But no matter what we choose to do we need to be sure that along with the ‘how’ we’ve got a good answer for the ‘why.’ I’d happily pay 56 bucks for that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And now a brief word from Dr. Tyson

Those of you who get the research channel (or in Canada those with Rogers Digital - check under TV/Documentary Channel on ROD*) might be interested to check out a chat with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium sponsored by HHMI. In it he describes his early career and answers questions from students. It becomes obvious early on why it is that he is such a great spokesperson for our profession. He's certainly an engaging personality, ("Illuminating and Entertaining" as the host summed him up) and has a talent for reducing concepts down to their essentials, not unlike my own advisor Peter Smith.

It's a lesson that we all can take to heart and one he summed up with an interesting anecdote. Early on in his career he described an encounter with the media in which he tried to explain, in scholarly fashion, why "wobble" wasn't quite the right term for describing the doppler method for detecting extrasolar planets. It turned out that his gyrations to demonstrate were the only thing that ended up on screen. From then on, he has made sure to have one two and three sentence descriptions in plain language of just about every topic in astronomy. This ensured that the message that he wanted to get across to the public did so directly, without misinterpretation or edit.

I try to remember that oft quoted phrase "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" typically attributed to Blaise Pascal. Conciseness is a challenge, especially for myself, but I aim to improve it! It's also very important to maintain this directness. Many of us are publicly funded and should be able to describe what we do to a broad audience. Besides, it's more fun anyways when we can share our passion and energy with a broader audience!

One final comment on the documentary: while I applaud Tyson's response to a student asking about challenges, I have to warn anyone considering Science that it tends to be more gray in practice. Tyson responded by telling the student that blind alleys abound in Science and it's not whether you make the big discovery or not that defines you as a Scientist, but instead your ability to regroup and make it around obstacles. Even a negative result is a publishable result. This is a good ideal, but I wonder how much hiring committees get caught up in trying to hire superstars with first author articles in the most prestigious journals. Likewise on the opposite side, it's a bad sign that "Experiment didn't work out" is not an uncommon reason for leaving the field (see an anecdote buried in this article describing the difficulties of working in Science: ).

*UPDATE: the lecture is now available online. Click on the image above or type into your browser.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

ITAR, Roth and Friedman

While most of these essays will be showing up about every two weeks, noteworthy events will justify an added comment. One such event was the recent conviction and sentencing of a University of Tennessee professor, J. Reece Roth in a case involving the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, better known to us spacecraft types as ITAR. You can read about the specifics of the case here:

ITAR is the law of the land in the United States, is enforced by the State Department and covers the export of defence technologies. While it mainly applies to military hardware it also applies to DoD-sponsored research, (as in the Roth case) the activities of defence contractors and, spacecraft and launch systems. As such, many NASA activities are covered by ITAR provisions and I can tell you from personal experience that these regulations are taken very seriously.

I should also mention that the term “export” is meant very broadly and information or equipment does not have to leave the country in order to be considered exported. Simply allowing a foreign national unauthorized access or taking a laptop with contract information abroad will satisfy the export provision. As well, many types of information that might not seem at first glance to be sensitive are covered. These include spacecraft instrument deck layouts, for instance. Often as a result, international treaties are required to secure international participation.

(Note: This may not always be the case. There has been talk of reclassifying spacecraft and launch hardware under the commerce department to free up this area. Much of this is due to a loss of market share in the commercial launch market to Europe since the late 90s.)

However, this all adds up to an inconvenience for those of us who are not US Citizens who would like to make a contribution to spacecraft and planetary science. In some cases, we cannot even apply for positions, while in others the compliance requirements put us at a competitive disadvantage compared to others. Even in the mildest cases, we often can not be included in many of the important decision making processes.

But I am ok with that. During my tenure in Arizona, I knew that I was a guest, even though - to the credit of those around me - I was always treated as an equal with the rest of my classmates. (Granted I am Canadian, so it was often forgotten that I was not, in fact, American myself) I am thankful for the opportunities that I was able to advantage of, and all the help I received over those years. As such, it is not for me to criticize why these rules exist. The US has a right to protect the technologies developed within its borders and a duty to provide the best opportunities for its citizens.

But it should be pointed out that these restrictions and the vigour with which they were enforced as shown by the Roth case may have the effect of discouraging talented individuals from outside the country from immigrating. (More potential pitfalls are discussed over at wikipedia in the controversy section: As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out, this could impact economically on the continued leadership of the United States in many technical fields.

While I would not go so far as he does in suggesting that all PhD recipients at US universities should be granted citizenship “stapled to their diplomas,” clearly fewer barriers before and after graduation would help retain top individuals. Further, given the serious expense involved with advanced training, often at the expense of the state or federal government, retention would be an admirable and cost-effective goal.

In the end it seems that Roth’s violation was more to the letter of the law, rather then to the spirit in which the law was enacted. Even the compliance officers at the University of Tennessee expressed their surprise in their report ( that a conviction was obtained without any evidence that national security was compromised. However, his activities continued even after he was informed of the ramifications. It was this flouting of the regulations which ultimately seems to have resulted in his conviction, and for that neither the prosecution nor the law can be faulted.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Do we need “All of the Planets, All of the Time”?

A colleague of mine with whom I have written a paper or two, Andrew Schuerger, announced at LPSC one year the existence of life on Mars. While it was a little tongue-in-cheek, his point contained an essential truth: that given the decontamination procedures in use, viable microbial life had almost certainly been transported to Mars on the inside of spacecraft. This was not idle speculation, nor was it entirely novel; cameras retrieved by the Apollo astronauts from the Ranger Lunar Landers still carried culturable bacteria after years of exposure to vacuum and radiation on the surface of the moon.

Even so, this doesn’t mean that we can expect to see carpets of green radiating out from our landed spacecraft any time soon. In fact, what organism are present are most likely in the form of dormant and hardened spores since Mars remains a pretty harsh place for even bacteria to grow. Further, anything viable on the exterior of a Martian spacecraft or on the surface would be killed within at most a few months of exposure to UV, depending on where it fell (you can take a look at for more details on these extreme cases).

This begs the question as to whether procedures used to decontaminate spacecraft and prevent forward contamination (not to be confused with reverse contamination by any extraterrestrial microbes, the type popularized by movies like the Andromeda Strain), collectively known as planetary protection and administered out of the Planetary Protection office of NASA in the United States, are really necessary.

One reason for wanting extra stringent sterilization is scientific. You need to have a very clean spacecraft to prevent any sensitive life or organic-detection equipment from inadvertently showing a false positive. To prevent this, severe decontamination measures are often taken. For instance, the Robotic Arm on the Phoenix Lander was enshrouded in a “bio-barrier” until after landing. But as we didn’t want to come to Mars to “discover” terrestrial organics on the scoop, this was an important precaution.

The specific level of sterility required varies by destination. The Robotic Arm employed by Phoenix needed to be as clean as it was as a result of its potential contact with the ice table in a region where life or its traces were possible. By international agreement, COSPAR has designated four levels of these regions which require progressively more stringent planetary protection measures (category five relates to reverse contamination The level of protection ranges from none, for a level one body like the moon to full sterilization for access to so-called special regions of Mars or Europa, the only two level four bodies in the solar system.

There are a few locations that may come as a surprise. Even orbiters of Mars are designated as level three, while a Venusian lander is rated at level one, mainly because there is nothing we can do to a spacecraft on Earth that is as destructive as what the venusian environment will do in-situ.

Either way, exploring a special region can be a costly or even a prohibitive burden on any space mission. Sterilization for the Viking Mission cost almost US$320 million, adjusted for inflation, or about 70% of the cost of an entire discovery-class mission.

More significant is the potential impact on mission operations. Often there are financial pressures which require reducing the functionality of hardware, a process known as descoping. This is true of nearly any mission, large or small. Cassini, a burly flagship, had its scan platforms eliminated while Phoenix, a bare-bones Scout, saw its Direct-To-Earth antenna and descent imager descoped. Thus, as a significant expense, one can cut costs dramatically by avoiding any region that requires special procedures altogether.

This is having a large impact on our exploration of Mars. Both ESA’s Exo-Mars and NASA’s Mars Science Lab, each a flagship-class mission, are avoiding special regions to pare back costs.

As well, it is arguable that an opportunity to study Europa might have been lost by the requirement of disposing of the Galileo Spacecraft in Jupiter’s atmosphere and not having it strike Europa. This could have been observed from the ground, or timed to coincide with the passage of the New Horizons spacecraft, which passed through the Jovian system on a gravity assist in February, 2007. The resulting plume could have told us a great deal about the composition of the Europan surface. Even if it had not been placed on a collision course for the moon, the spacecraft could have continued collecting data until it ran out of orbit-maintenance propellant and allowed to become derelict.

It is true that we do not want to contaminate these places to the point that we can no longer study them. But what makes these regions special is also what makes them interesting and desirable targets. As such, I have to wonder if the best is not the enemy of the good in this case. As much as we can learn incrementally from non-special regions, the rewards of exploring these other areas are potentially much greater. Space exploration is a public enterprise, and nothing grabs the imagination of our funding base more then uncovering more about the potential for life in the solar system and our place in it. If we continue to ignore these places because we set such a high bar for their exploration, we risk loosing this valuable support.

Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of resource management. Anyone who has had a cold can appreciate the resourcefulness of the little Von Neuman machines which are terrestrial microorganisms. But evolution cannot operate in the absence of reproduction and even in special regions, conditions are not exactly clement. The chances of terrestrial contaminants merely venturing beyond the level of dormant spores, not to mention thriving and replicating, anywhere on the Martian or Europan surface is low.

As such, perhaps we could consider setting aside areas where limited local contamination is permissible. This would preserve the special regions as a whole while allowing us to get answers to our biggest outstanding questions. As well, recall that any directly interacting part or life detection sensor will need to be incredibly clean to avoid false positives, so even this compromise does not increase the risk much. As Andrew has said, there is life on Mars within our landed spacecraft. But if it is confined to that barest of inhabitable niches, then the planet remains protected.

Either way, the point may be moot soon. With boots-on-the-ground human exploration planned for not long after the current pair of missions to Mars, contamination becomes inevitable. After all, it’s hard to sterilize a creature that is 10% by mass bacteria.

For more information, you can check out this helpful Nature News article:

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Today I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trillogy (+1 for the short story collection) for the second time. Robinson's work has always had an interesting element of the objective for me; it's a product of the amount of research that goes into his books. At times, this can make him a hard author to read, but there are dividends to be paid to a patient audience. I know that it took me several tries to get into Antarctica, but it was well worth it in the end. But even in a work so well plotted, with so much hard science and engineering for a background, it was a completely different experience for me this time around.

You see, when I first read the books, I was involved with my udergraduate work. At the time I was studying to be an engineer, but I'd always had an idle interest in science fiction since I was young. In fact, I might have gone straight into astronomy, had it not been for the frustration I had experienced with a certain telescope in my youth. Since then, the idea of space travel always seemed a bit disconnected from reality for me. The type of thing you might daydream about, but not something you would actually do as a career.

But these books showed me that there was something more. Perhaps I could turn my interest into my career. And so, I enrolled in and completed a doctorate in planetary science after finishing up my undergrad. As a result, I now know much of the background material inside and out. So while I was interested to read the books once more, just to meet all the familiar characters over again, I was even more curious to see what I would think now that I knew the language.

You see, reading a book is not a passive activity, but depends highly upon what you bring to the table. This is something I've encountered before with the Ender's Game series from Orson Scott Card. When I first read the books at 16, it just could not get better then the first book where the main character is a child and then a teenager. Later, when I was 25, I re-read the series and now I've come to feel that the second book "Speaker for the Dead" is the better one. Will I prefer the third book when I am fifty? I would not be surprised.

And so this time when I reread the books, it felt more like summing up. Mars is a place I've visited, if only by proxy, over the course of the Phoenix mission and in my research. What interested me more this time around wasn't the excitement of the initial exploration and colonization or even the terraforming ("Red," "Green") but what comes next ("Blue," "Martians"). How is it that people choose to live their lives and all the little stories that come together to make up a culture.

I know these last two have earned the derision of many, but I really appreciated the tapestry being put together, even if it was less technical and less plot-driven then the others. I even appreciated how Robinson brings in short stories written before the books that mildly contradict what happens in the 'canon.' Each of us sees reality in subtly different ways, and neither of us ever walks the same road twice, changed as we are by the interviening time.

Perhaps this also appeals to me because I feel like I am at a bit of a cross-roads. I've completed my training, discovered, explored and constructed my world, so to speak. So now it is time to figure out how to live in it. However, this year, I seem to be stuck going sideways. Even though I've entered a new field, (out of necessity, admitedly) I feel like I'm just rehashing the past five years over again. And I'm ready to return to planetary science. I'm ready to forge on ahead. I'm ready for a new challenge.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who am I?

Let me introduce myself. My name is John Moores and I'm a Planetary Scientist currently working in Toronto, Canada. I graduated last fall with a doctorate from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona where I studied under Peter Smith, Principal Investigator (or P.I. as we call him - watch out for plenty of acronyms on this blog) of the Phoenix Mission. Prior to my time at LPL, I completed a Bachellor's Degree in Engineering Science at the university of Toronto.

I've worked on a bunch of space missions (Phoenix, Huygens) and hope to work on a bunch more, with a little luck. Scientifically speaking, I seem to enjoy studying water particularly in its frozen form. I did my dissertation on different types of water on Mars and am really excited about studying comets, glaciers, clouds and icy satellites. Even ice on the moon, which hopefully we'll know more about soon once the results are in from LCROSS (which successfully launched today - congrats to them and the LRO spacecraft which shared the fairing).

If you "want to know more" (*) feel free to drop by my page over at

Next post: Actual content (I promise)

(*) That line from "Starship Troopers" has to be useful for something, seared as it is in my brain. Those looking for (good) Heinlein, give "The Moon is a harsh mistress" a try. It even fits in with today's theme.

Third Time's a Charm

Hello, and welcome to HTWT! For those of you keeping score, this will be the third time I have attempted to keep a blog. So, if you've come by and haven't seen any new posts for years, I sincerely apologize.

However, there is reason to hope that this one may be more successful then the last two. First, to mine and my wife's surprise, I've been maintaining a twitter account for a couple of months (@ArcticSaxifrage). This suggests that I may be able to find the time and stick with online expression on a semi-regular basis. Secondly, I have a compelling reason for starting this blog and attempting to maintain it. I'll be blunt: I'm a recent doctoral graduate in planetary science who is looking for a job and opportunities for scientific collaboration. By allowing a bit more of myself online, hopefully I'll get the chance to advance both aims. So, if you fit the bill and can help, then I've done my job.

As such, I see this as just one other facet of my online presence. I hope to use it to compliment each of the other three: my professional website ( , twitter account (@ArcticSaxifrage) and LinkedIN profile. Each of these does some things well and others not so well. In particular, a venue for more in-depth and considered writing and interaction has been lacking. Hopefully this blog will adress this.

That doesn't mean that this blog will be overly technical. I hope that what I write will be accessible to a broad audience interested in planetary science. As well, do not hesitate to ask questions. As a former academic, there's nothing we like better then the opportunity to help. One of the benefits of planetary science is the broadness of the enterprise. As such, those of us so-trained get enough of a taste of the entire field to be a bit enthralled with it all without getting to bogged down everywhere in minutia. We also are forever learning new things and are keen to share what we find. As such, the focus of this blog may change over time.

So there you have it. This is why I'm doing this and I hope that you find reason to enjoy what you find written in this space. I have "fancy plans and pants to match"(*). You and I will both see how it turns out.

Next Post: Who am I?

(*) Ahh "News Radio" - from the biography translated out and back again.