Last night, the Astronomy.fm program "Live at York U" had an interesting interview with my current postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Jim Whiteway. In astronomical circles, Jim is best known as the Co-Investigator (Co-I, in the jargon of the business) of the Lidar and MET packages on board the Phoenix Lander, but he also heads the Centre for Research in the Earth and Space Sciences at York University. By way of full disclosure I've had the opportunity to collaborate with him on and off since 2006/2007 or so and have been working for him for nine months now. There are a couple of points that he mentioned or that came up in discussion between Paul Delaney (Director of the York University Observatory) and Host Robert Berthiaume that bear repeating or commenting.
First, there's the subject of planetary science in Canada. Jim mentioned that he had always wanted to go into planetary science when he was younger, but noticing that there was little planetary science work being done in Canada at the time, he elected to go into Optics/LIDAR work instead. While it remains difficult to find full time academic work in this field, he feels that things have improved significantly. Graduate students can now pursue planetary or space studies at places like the University of New Brunswick, the University of Toronto, York University and, of course, the University of Western Ontario where my future supervisor, Dr. Gordon Osinski, is deeply involved with both the Canadian Lunar Research network and the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration. There are also smaller projects available here and there from Memorial University to Dalhousie, to McGill to the University of Alberta. To enhance all of this the Canadian Space Agency has been developing our strength in hosting the world's researchers at planetary analog sites. The most famous of these is the Houghton Impact Structure up on Devon Island where NASA, CSA and the Mars Society (Amongst many others) have been known to test equipment. The astrobiological exploration and research at Pavillion Lake also got a lot of good publicity this year. To cap it off, NSERC has recently created a program to fund students and postdocs called CREATE, and the CSA is hopeful that several new research chairs in planetary and space science will be announced later this year.
So it seems that things are on the upswing in Canadian Planetary Science. One of Jim's comments in particular was music to my ears: that Canadian students should consider this field. After being told time and time again by academics in Canada that planetary science was a dying field and I'd best jump ship before my career sank beneath the waves, it feels good that someone is willing to be optimistic in a public way.
However, is Canada the best place for students to learn their craft? This brings me to a second point raised by Delaney and Berthiaume, that students do not seem to have been significantly involved on the Canadian side of Phoenix. Unfortunately this is largely true. There are, of course, exceptions but these are mostly students brought in after the fact to analyze data and not expected to participate in science team discussions or the mission operations. Contrast this with the attitude of the Americans. I (Arizona) worked as a Strategic Science Planner, as did my fellow grad students Doug Archer (Arizona) and Selby Cull (Washington). Many of the IDE/ISE's were also undergrad students for the SSI, in particular. These students gave presentations at the science meetings and helped to decide the course of operations. Some even put in long hours building and validating space hardware. One case in particular bears mention: Rigel Woida, an undergraduate in the Optical Sciences Department at the University of Arizona was the principal engineer on the organic-free blank used to test the TEGA instrument in flight! So obviously there were more opportunities to participate for those working south of the border.
Why the difference between the Canadian and American teams? Part of it has to do with the profile of the mission. I do get the impression that Phoenix was a bigger deal in Canada than it was in the USA, thus the Americans were able to take more of a "gamble" on using students in key roles. Even so there are several upsides to such a gamble. First, costs are lowered as you get a highly skilled workforce willing to accept little pay for the prestige of working on a space mission. Secondly, you are helping to develop the field and build a cadre of young researchers with mission experience who can go on to plan and operate missions of their own later on. In this sense, I feel that Canada missed out a bit on Phoenix.
This brings me to my last comment, a small piece of advice. After the interview, master's student Berthiaume expressed concern about graduate students who might base their entire thesis on a space mission that has yet to fly. Delaney felt that it's no different from researchers in other fields who might base their theses on experiments that have yet to run. Still, I feel there is a significant difference between the two areas. Rarely, in the case of a lab experiment, does a failure so spectacular occur that you cannot repair the equipment and try again. It may take a bit more time and a bit more money, but you aren't ruined. However, if the spacecraft you based your thesis on crashes, the mission it was to take on won't soon be repeated and you will have to start all over again. Thus, we were counselled at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory not to depend upon mission success for getting our PhD's. That piece of good advice has been followed by many, and with resources like the PDS making data from past missions publicly available there is no shortage of research topics to choose from. As Jim mentioned, one dirty little secret about space missions is that the science team can some times be so caught up in running a mission that they do not get to their data until years later (we're still publishing Phoenix data to this day). That means that there are lots of opportunities for significant and ground-breaking student projects to participate in if you talk to a team that has just finished with a mission.