Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dr. Catherine Neish (Conversations at the DPS, profile 2)

A world of possibility: Dr Catherine Neish at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, CA in 2006. Photograph by Diana Smith.

It was only recently, once I finished a dissertation on "habitability," that I finally admitted to myself that I am a bit of an Astrobiologist. Perhaps a bit of the reason I was so slow to come to that realization was that I tend to eschew the sorts of things that are in fashion and, especially a few years ago, nothing was more in fashion than Astrobiology. However, this week's interview subject, Dr. Catherine Neish, has always been an Astrobiologist and has said it loud and proud. Even during her undergrad at UBC, it was a topic of interest and led her to complete an REU at the famous Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico and to the presidency of their Astronomy club. Since that time, you could often see the SETI screen saver putting away, participating in a program to help process all the accumulated data, searching for signals from the sky.

When it comes to academics, she's no dilettante either. At the University of Arizona, Catherine held down a Julie Payette fellowship from the Canadian Government, the most prestigious fellowship on offer, and was a Galileo Circle Scholar. At the time, she specialized in laboratory experiments to simulate the prebiotic chemistry of Saturn's moon Titan (a tough task, to be sure!). Somehow, even with all of that she managed to participate in student government as the president of the U of A's graduate and professional student council. She also was the Principal Investigator of her Team-X class.

These days, she holds down a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA's Applied Physics Lab in Baltimore, MD, where she works on Lunar Science with the mini-RF team, a component of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Also, as a dual citizen, she straddles the line between the Canadian take on planetary science and that of the United States, able to move effortlessly from one to the other. As such, she offers a unique perspective on the space aspirations of both countries, which I enjoyed fleshing out during our conversation.

Catherine's Interview runs Monday, November 1st at 8PM EDT over on's "Live at York U" program. I'll be on-air to discuss further the topics from the interview, so if you'd like to ask a question, join us over at I'll happily answer any questions from the audience on the air!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dr. Jason Barnes (Conversations at the DPS, Profile 1)

Dr. Jason Barnes - never hesitating to find the necessary vantage point for his work. Photographed by Brian Jackson near Death Valley, California in 2006.

Tomorrow evening at 8PM EDT, the first interview in our six-part series "Conversations at the DPS" will run over on This first edition features Dr. Jason Barnes, currently an Assistant Prof at the University of Idaho. Jason is an old friend of mine from my earliest graduate school days. He was a few years ahead of me in the program, but stuck around for two years after his PhD doing a postdoc with Bob Brown on the VIMS Instrument. His PhD thesis was entitled "Characterizing transiting extrasolar giant planets: On companions, rings, and love handles." However, his postdoc was a complete 180° pivot, in which he began the planetary surfaces work on the surface of Titan which he continues to this day. This demonstrates the kind of researcher that a jack-of-all trades planetary science program is able to produce; a very useful kind of versatility.

Since he left LPL/UA, Jason has kept busy. He spent two years on an NPP (NASA Postdoctoal Program) at the NASA Ames Research facility near Mountain View, CA (located between San Francisco and San Jose) prior to begining his appointment at Idaho. All the while, he maintained his affiliation with the VIMS instrument in particular and the Cassini mission in general. Already, he has begun to look out beyond the current exploration of Titan's surface (currently due to wind down with Casssini by 2018). He is the principal investigator on the AVIATR mission which seeks to place a nuclear-powered UAV in Titan's atmosphere - a daring proposal. But he hasn't abandoned extrasolar planets entirely, publishing work on this topic as recently as last year (2009).

One aspect of his work is something I really appreciate: bringing novel techniques to bear on planetary mission data to wring every last piece of information out of a few bits. I really enjoyed his DPS talk on constraining wave heights on Titan based on nothing other then the width of a single specular glint over a couple of pixels in just a few frames of VIMS imagery. This is an area that I enjoy as well (check out my most recent paper on the SSI for an example, and I hope to have another in press in the near future!) and it's good to see other people breaking outside of a single research technique to attempt these analyses.

Jason's interview was a joy to do: it didn't really feel like a formal interview, but was more like the many chats we would have around the campfire on field trips. Those were some of the high points in my graduate career, and I hope you enjoy listening to the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Jason.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are the Humanities a Subset?

I always enjoy the sharp with and careful reasoning that can be found in many of Stanley Fish's columns. His most recent is no exception and clears up a misunderstanding I had with his previous offering. You see, Dr. Fish was describing how the Humanities have been tantalizing targets for University Administrators who have sought to reduce their costs as the result of vanishing public funding for Universities. He felt that on pure economic grounds, Humanities are not justifiable. Does arcane analysis of literature add nothing to the public's enjoyment of said literature? If not, then perhaps there is no direct societal value. Do humanities programs produce goods of value, or graduates who go on to be highly compensated? If not, then perhaps there is no direct economic benefit. Fair enough. However, Dr. Fish seems to imply that the case for the humanities should be argued based entirely on tradition, as the following quote emphasizes.

I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum — that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said — but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.

-Dr. Stanley Fish, (New York Times)

What remained unsaid, and has been added in the most recent column, is that the analysis of humanists is not in terms of direct value, but of added value:

Instead ask what contribution can a knowledge of the Russian language and Russian culture make to our efforts in Far Eastern studies to understand what is going on in China and Japan (the answer is, a big contribution). Ask would it be helpful for students in chemistry to know French or students in architecture and engineering to know the classics (you bet it would).

Now, Fish eschews this added value argument, but this could be a winning stroke for the humanities. Perhaps they are a little bit like BASF whose ads used to proclaim "we don't make a lot of the things you buy, we make a lot of the things you buy better." In this sense, the Humanities are a subset of the larger university, adding value to the activities of all other groups and to the students and researchers so produced. In fact, by implication, it might be the humanities that make the University and differentiate it from a directly economically justified entity, such as a trade college.

Moreover, there is the role of University Presidents. In many cases, these are appointed by state legislatures which raises an interesting question: is the chief administrator simply a soldier carrying out the wishes of elected representatives? Or should the president be an advocate for the University community? One of Fish's major beefs seems to have been that the president who sought to cancel languages at SUNY leaned towards the former instead of the latter:

That’s O.K. It’s not their job to value the humanities or even to understand them. But it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

It's an interesting perspective, coming from the other side of the academic business from my own. Over here, we often brag about the amount of money we bring in and specializations live or die by how economically viable they are for the university. However, if you move back a single step, you could make similar arguments for my own business of planetary science as are often made about the "unproductive" humanities. After all, from the university's perspective we are highly viable because we are able to obtain NASA/CSA/NSERC grants. But when you think about why those grants are available in the first place, you come back to the problem faced by Dr. Fish. After all, putting aside the quest for knowledge and distant benefits, what does exploring the solar system do for humanity in the right here and now? (aside from inspiring many young scientists and engineers to enter the field who otherwise would not have done so; many of whom "leak out" of the profession and go on to pursue directly viable enterprises)

I can also sympathize on Dr. Fish's point of synergies. For instance, when we have a group come by the observatory on public nights, we do our best to connect them with what they are seeing. That means not only do we tell them why the stars look the way they do, how they were formed and how far away they are; but we also tell them about constellations and the greek, latin and arabic etymologies of their names. That kind of detailed cultural information which enhances the experience doesn't spring forth from planetary science or astronomy. Instead, it is the humanities that provides the connecting details that allows us to prove the economic and cultural worth of our field to others. Food for thought for those who would break up the concept of the University.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

DPS Notebook, Odds and Ends

Still emptying the DPS journal folks, one more to go after this one, but that one won't be about DPS per se, just general musings on the profession, conferences, etc. (something I wrote at 4AM on the plane home, so I've yet to decide whether to throw it up).

The first thing to mention is that I was lucky enough to get a total of six interviews with early career folks at the DPS and I feel they went rather well. After speaking with my colleagues at "Live at York U" over on, we have come to a decision regarding the schedule. Things kick off with a little introduction from me on October 18th, including some clips from talks by Ray Arvidson, Bob Pappalardo, Steve Squyres and Jim Green, then we get into the meat of things:

October 25th - Dr. Jason Barnes (Idaho)
November 1st - Dr. Catherine Neish (Johns Hopkins/NASA-APL)
November 8th - Dr. David Minton (SwRI/Purdue)
November 15th - Dr. Britany Schmidt (Texas)
November 22nd - Dr. David Choi (Arizona)
November 29th - Dr. Jonathan Fortney (Santa Cruz)

Note that all interviews will run over on at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific. I believe that we will be shifting with the clocks when that happens, so for listeners in Arizona, note that time change. I am also happy to report that all the interviews will run in complete form, and have only been slightly cut. So look for 20-30 mins for the interviews.

I'm planning on doing a little blurb about each of the subjects on the day their interview airs. But I will reveal this much now: in addition to planetary science we all share a connection to the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Some of us are still there (Choi) and most of us got our PhD's there (exception: Schmidt [UCLA]). In part I picked these people because I was familiar with them, even if I don't know them that well personally. But it is a testament to the program at LPL that I didn't have to look outside to find a wide range of expertise and planetary targets for study. We will be spanning the entire solar system both in time from its formation to the present day, and from the Earth, through the Asteroids, Jupiter, Europa, Saturn, Titan, the Ice Giants, the Kuiper belt and on to Extrasolar Planetary Systems.

Are you a Planetary Scientists and would like to be the subject of a future interview? Drop me a line in the comments! If you're located in the Greater Toronto Area or will be at next March's LPSC, we can arrange something taped, otherwise we can do a live interview. Either way we'd love to hear from you!

Other interesting tidbits (based on my #DPS2010 posts):

(1) Mars just keeps getting more warm and wet in the past - we've found exposures of the missing carbonates exposed by impact craters all over the place. The absence of carbonates was a major mystery for a long time. However, it seems that much in the same way that most of the water-altered minerals at Gusev were buried by later deposits, the carbonates are not absent, merely covered up! I was less impressed by the atmospheric modelling teams who used today's martian terrain and obliquity to describe the movement of volatiles 4 billion years in the past. While it's true that we don't know what that Mars would have looked like, it seems clear that Tharsis, at least, would not have existed. Since, in the current day, Tharsis is a major obstacle for a moving air mass and causes a great deal of atmospheric condensation through orographic cloud formation it should not be present in past models. Still, the authors did point out that it is difficult to support liquid on Mars with the faint young sun, even if you assume a very thick 5 Bar CO2 atmosphere.

(2) A consensus is emerging over lunar swirls - as someone who has done some geomorphology, I'm a sucker for an interestingly shaped surface feature. The lunar swirls have been a mystery for a long time since they were first seen in the 1960s. In an impressive series of talks in the lunar session, observations made by LRO placed brick after brick in the foundation that these are features in which variations frozen into mare lavas have been emphasized by differential space weathering. The anomalous magnetization of these features show that they deflect the solar wind. Thus, in addition to their differing magnetization they show differing albedos and a lack of solar-H implantation (so no hydrated water). However, Radar backscatter shows no difference in roughness, implying that the swirls are only skin deep (less than 15cm)!

(3) The disappearing exoplanets announcement - a great deal of excitement surrounded a talk called "Title Embargoed." After all, if we couldn't know the title ahead of time, it must have been a pretty big discovery! However, through the magic of delayed peer review, the presenters took to the stage only to announce that Nature would not permit them to speak about the work. Speculation as to what was to be reported was rampant, as were thoughts as to why the reviewers might be drawing out the process. In this highly competitive field, it could be that the reviewers are stalling until they can replicate the result. Or it could be that the discovery is itself uncertain and the authors are having difficulty satisfying the reviewers that their discovery is genuine, above the error bounds of their measurement. For an example, just take a look at the discovery (or not) of an earth-sized planet just this past week.

(4) Titan surface geology outpaces our wildest hopes - data from Radar and VIMS were presented in which wave height in the Titanian lakes was constrained both from specular glinting and backscatter. As well, the controversial proposition that the equatorial "coffee ground" sand dunes show interspersed liquid hydrocarbon seepage was debated.

(5) Faster computers make dynamical calculations better - some of the major problems in solar system formation are beginning to sort themselves out, in particular the long-standing puzzle of why Mars is so small. It seems that the solution may be that as the Giant Planets migrated inward then outward, they created a sharp edge to the disc of planetessimals which formed the inner planets. As well, the outward migration would have scattered a great deal of icy material in past the solar system's snow line, enhancing the amount of water delivered to the terrestrial planets. This is troubling from an astrobiological point of view, since to make this situation work you need two large gas giants which form early and in just the right places and then evolve until they hit a resonance with one another many millions of years down the road. How common is that type of formation? At the very least it adds another term to the drake equation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sagan's Lesson: Learning from the EPO Masters at the DPS

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, as photographed by Matthew Field in 2007 ( A mecca for astronomers and planetary scientists old and young alike, this place embodies the contact between science and the public.

Not every presentation at the DPS is on planetary science, there is also a limited subset of posters, talks and booths which deal with education and public outreach. While this component is much less developed than it is at LPSC, which has featured an EPO session, it is present nevertheless in the exhibit hall. Some of these are education of the scientists themselves, for instance, there was a poster on the PDS, the planetary data system, which a scientist who happened to be attending and who had never used spacecraft data before would have found very informative. Others announced
new journals, such as Springer's “Planetary Science” which, no doubt intends to try and give the Division's own journal, Icarus, a run for its money. Still others advertised services and products of use to the planetary community.

But there was also material presented on how we can better go about educating our students and getting our message out to the broader public. The fact that these presentations are here at all are a testament to a famous planetary scientist named Carl Sagan who believed strongly that as scientists and recipients of public funding that it was imperative that we share our knowledge, our experience and our enthusiasm with the broader community. In his honour, the DPS each year awards the Sagan Medal to the active planetary scientist who has done the most over their lifetime to
advancing planetary science amongst the public. This year's recipient was Carolyn Porco, Voyager mission veteran and Principal Investigator for Cassini's ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem), now located at SSI (Space Science Institute) in Boulder, Colorado.

Carolyn was a friend of Carl's, and the award was originally planned to be given to her by his wife, Ann Druyan. Sadly, Ann was not able to attend, but a touching letter was read in her absence. Carolyn then took the stage in the bright lights of a camera crew, and delivered a brilliant speech. This in some respects is a testament to today's most famous scientists: they are also masters of media and minor stars in their own rights. For instance, in addition to her appearances in documentaries about Cassini, Science and Space Exploration, Carolyn was also a science advisor on
movies, including “Contact” and contributed to the portrayal of Titan in “Star Trek.”

These are all interesting interfaces where education, media and planetary science touch. But EPO is also reasonably big business. Your typical NASA Spacecraft contract since the early 2000s requires that 1% of money be spent on EPO. For a mission like Phoenix, that works out to several million dollars, and we were lucky enough to have funding for a separate media/public affairs officer (Doug Lombardi then Sara Hammond) and an education/outreach director (Carla Bitter). We had a full size mock-up
built, many very professional presentations were given, a publicity trip to Alaska for educators was held and so forth. With so much money at stake, this is an area at which we need to excel.

Beyond this component were some activities which were not, on the surface, meant to be educational but from which I learned some immediately applicable lessons. There were trips to two world famous locations. The first was the Griffith Observatory, which despite the name was never a research observatory, but instead was directly intended by its founder, Griffith J. Griffith as a place where the public could come and learn about astronomy and get the chance to use the smaller telescopes. While
the urban sprawl of Los Angeles has severely restricted what is observable from Griffith, its educational aspect is top notch. I was lucky enough to attend two planetarium shows and take a look through one of their Schmidt-Cassegrains at the Wild Duck Cluster. I was particularly impressed by their use of live presenters. While they didn't demand audience participation (in fact it was more of a performance) they were seamlessly able to show us how the stars looked at different places on the Earth by using Norse Mythology and "The Lord of the Rings" to grab the audience.

I also must admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for Art-Deco architecture, so how could I resist? A colleague who accompanied me to the observatory described my reaction as "a kid in a candy store."

Next was the final activity of the conference for me, a visit to the largest telescope in the world from 1948-1975 and in North America through 1998 (an interesting piece of trivia, at 6m the LZT is the largest telescope on Canadian soil and the largest liquid-mirror telescope in the world). Mount Palomar is easily worth the trip to the mountains inland of San Diego. The structure is amazing; a 200" (5m) mirror is cradled within a 500-ton RA/Dec rig and balanced on a gigantic horseshoe. Heck, the secondary mirror is 42" wide! They were even kind enough to move the dome around for us, with my group poised on the edge! Since I help to give tours at the York Observatory, it was useful to pick up a few tricks of the trade from the docents who have been working at this amazing piece of technology for decades.

An interesting note: both Griffith and Palomar are steeped in history and chance. Griffith almost didn't happen as the City of Los Angeles originally did not wish to accept the gift of such a distant site (at the time LA was a small town of 100,000 residents, now you might describe Griffith as almost being downtown). At Palomar, the epic pouring of the mirror (it took months to cool) at Corning in New York in 1936 had to wait for the end of WWII for installation. Originally, the operator occupied a cage near the prime focus, high above the floor, where glass slides would be installed. Of course, some folks decided to put their own heads at prime focus and one described it as the most religious moment of his life. Fascinating stuff!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Belated report on NASA Night

Sorry for the wait, folks, but I've been slammed with work and such for the past few days and am only now getting to posting some of my conference notes! This one deals with the NASA night that was held during the conference. I'll also have at least one more posting and a wrap posting in a day or two (I hope!) which deals with the random collection of other notes I made. So without further ado, I give you NASA Night at the DPS!


The NASA logo, affectionately called the Meatball by the community.

Tuesday night was the annual NASA night here at DPS. Basically, it's a town-hall style meeting in which NASA, through the planetary science director, updates the community on what has been happening over the last year, what issues are outstanding. After that they take a number of questions from the community. One of the real treats of last night was a half-hour session devoted to an update on the Planetary Science Decadal survey, given by the chair, Steve Squyres.

Squyres revealed that the first draft of the Decadal Survey has in fact been submitted to the NRC, just this past week. This draft will next undergo peer review and should be available for release by the end of February 2011 and will be presented formally in march at LPSC (The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference). Now while Squyres could not reveal the contents of the report at this stage, he was able to speak in broad strokes about what we should expect. First of all, this decadal survey had an additional constraint compared to previous decadal surveys. Not only was the committee tasked with identifying the best science to be done, but they were asked to determine the cost of doing that science and to use that cost estimate as a factor in ranking what should be done. The result may be less of a guideline, as previous decadal surveys have been, and more of a concrete and implementable plan.

To that end, the survey committee sought out a great deal of mission assessment (millions of dollars worth) and then had the numbers checked over independently by Aerospace Corporation. There are exceptions. First of all, the smallest missions, the Discovery-class, will not be ranked as these are meant to respond to opportunities and discoveries as the decade goes on. As well, the survey committee was asked to not interfere with the current New Frontiers selection process, and so the three surviving candidates - OSIRIS, SAGE and MoonRise - were not evaluated. It should be interesting to see what makes its way into the final report. You could certainly tell that Squyres was excited and wished he could just go ahead and spill the beans right then and there.

Following the decadal survey update, Jim Green, the planetary science director at NASA Headquarters described the highlights of the year past and the year yet to come. Two items stuck out in my mind. First, there is a real bonanza of activity taking place over the next 600 days or so, something that NASA is describing as the Year of the Solar System. Given its length, it's a Mars Year, as Green pointed out. It also has a website,, and a new educational software package named “eyes on the solar system” which was demoed here at DPS and will go live at the end of the month. Over the course of this time, we've got the release of the decadal survey, the arrival of Messenger at Mercury, and the launch of three spacecraft over four months in 2011 (GRAIL [moon], Juno [jupiter] and MSL [mars]).

The second item is the difficulty that NASA is having in getting the Pu-238 that is required for NASA to run planetary missions beyond Mars. As we get further and further out in the solar system, the amount of solar flux available to power spacecraft gets less and less, so much so that by the time you get out to the orbit of Jupiter, where the flux is less than 4% of what it is at Earth, it is especially impractical for spacecraft to be solar powered, although Juno intends to try it.

Instead, spacecraft are powered by the radioactive decay of Pu-238. This material is packaged as alloy at far from weapons-grade concentrations in a series of aeroshells which are intended to survive a launch-pad accident. Meanwhile, the heat given off by the radioactive decay is harnessed as a power source, classically using a thermocouple run in reverse, to produce an RTG, or radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

But the total amount of Pu-238 is limited, and it has been more than 30 years since Pu-238 was last produced by the United States. As such, the stock of material has been steadily diminishing, despite purchases from the russians, so that currently there is insufficient plutonium to power all the NASA missions that are on the books. This includes efforts to extend the lifetime of the current stock by utilizing more efficient heat utilization methods, such as sterling cycles (SRGs) which are much more efficient and thus require less plutonium. There have also been efforts to front-load the usage (since the stock naturally decays away and less is left on the shelf each day) by offering incentives in the recent Discovery AO to teams proposing SRG power sources. A large fraction of the 28 propsers reportedly took them up on the offer.

This is an issue of particular concern to the DPS, which has less of a Mars-component than other planetary science conferences, and the division membership has been writing letters to congress about the issue for several years. This year, there was a positive sign in that the approvals bills for NASA and the DOE (Department of Energy) both talked about the desire for DOE to restart Pu-238 production. NASA was even given approval to spend 15 million dollars on its share of this program.

However, the approval of administration budgets by congress is a complicated process with an approval and appropriational level. That is to say that NASA may be “approved” to carry out activities, but the money required to do them may not be “appropriated.” Sure enough, in the appropriations bill for the DOE, language on the restart of plutonium stated that since NASA was the only public user of Pu-238, it should have to shoulder the entire cost burden, some 90 million dollars all told. So unfortunately, it doesn't look like much is going to happen on this issue this year.

As a final note, an old classmate of mine at LPL, Terry Hurford, was announced as one of the new names at NASA HQ. He will be a program scientist in the OPR (Outer Planets Research) division of the NASA R&A Program, and largely takes over for Curt Neibur who becomes project scientist for EJSM.


Following NASA night many of us took off for an important "AG" meeting. The AGs are Assessment Groups and many of the popular destinations in the solar system have one to help prioritize our exploration and science activities. For instance, I get a great deal of mail from MEPAG, the Mars Exploration Program Assessment Group. The AGs have their international counterparts too, the WGs. For Mars that would be IMEWG, the International Mars Exploration Working Group. However, the AG I was headed for was much more social in nature. The BWEAG, or Beer and Wine Exploration Assessment Group, was conceived and chaired by Andy Rivkin. It reminds us that conferences are not just a place to listen to talks, but to interact socially with your peers and discuss what you learned that day. Many a new collaboration has been formed at places like meetings of the BWEAG. To my knowledge, there is not yet an IBWWG, but just in case Andy comes up with one, you read it here first!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The end of lifetime tenure on spacecraft missions

Michael Carroll's concept of the Europa-Jupiter System Mission which proposes to implement a partially revolving science team.

One of my mentors and a friend at the University of Arizona is a professor named Bob Brown. In his earlier days, Bob worked with Voyager and was best known as the originator of a concept known as the solid state greenhouse effect. This concept would later be applied to Neptune's moon Triton and indirectly to the sublimation spiders on Mars. In 1989, as voyager was winding down, Bob was selected as an instrument Principal Investigator for the VIMS (Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) instrument on Cassini and has worked on that mission ever since. Currently, Cassini is funded through 2017 which will bring Bob close to retirement. Now Bob has also worked on other projects, but Voyager and Cassini have dominated his professional life.

It was originally intended for Cassini to have what we in the Mars program know of as a Participating Scientist program. Basically, this is a program whereby younger scientists who were perhaps not well-known enough to make it onto the main science team through the black art of mission team selection, could join the mission later on, after launch. But unfortunately the participating scientist program never happened. In this respect Cassini is far from unique. Phoenix also was forced to cancel its participating scientist program for monetary reasons.

Still, there is a big difference in giving lifetime tenure to science team members when a mission is expected to last 90 sols or even 152 sols, as Phoenix did, and giving lifetime tenure to science team members on a mission which could last 10, 20 or 30 years. This is something that NASA headquarters has realized, and to their credit, once it became clear that the MER rovers were going to far outlive their expected 90-sol missions, they held a participating scientist selection program that allowed new blood onto the mission, and helped the careers of many young scientists.

Now NASA hopes to apply this model to a future flagship mission. Today, Curt Neibur, project scientist for the EJSM (Europa-Jupiter System Mission) project announced a science team concept for the mission which is nothing short of revolutionary. While instrument P.I.'s and their Co-I's would maintain science team status throughout selection and all phases of the mission (projected to last from early 2011 through 2029), much of the science team would be hired on 3-5 year contracts as investigation scientists. These people would roll-on and roll-off the mission providing their expertise for a limmited time only.

This approach makes a great deal of sense. For instance, currently the project scientist needs to try to anticipate all the different expertise which will be required, and hire everyone at the start. As a result, some science team members do relatively little until after launch when their expertise is required. Other unanticipated needs may end up unfilled by a full science-team member. By having the option to change the make-up of the team over time, it becomes possible to use your resources more efficiently. You have the flexibility to hire those science team members who can be most useful in any particular phase at the time when their expertise is most needed, and not have to carry them through the entire project.

Additionally, this gives a way of getting more people involved with the mission, especially younger career people, who might have had great difficulty in breaking into a mission previously. By cycling through these science team members, perhaps as many as 6 generations worth with a mission like EJSM, you can expand the base of those who have intimate knowledge of the data sets to be gathered. That means better science return, as more people in the science community at large will have direct knowledge of how to process and interpret the recieved data. This contrasts markedly from the current situation where many of the researchers operating out of the PDS have had no direct contact with the team, instruments or spacecraft which gathered the data that they are interpreting.

The rub here is how to reward these rolled-off science team members in order to make the program attractive to them. Many questioners were concerned that in the early years, investigation scientist positions would be undesirable. Those who would be selected would be giving up significant time to get hardware ready for flight; time which might be better spent publishing or advancing their careers. Furthermore, given the large number of scientists who would cycle through, the cachet to working on the mission in that capacity would be reduced. As Curt has said before, operations experience on a NASA mission which has ended may be edifying, but a potential academic employer will not regard it as a plus. More potentially problematic is determining which investigation scientists get inside the data embargo once the science phase of the mission begins.

Therein lies an interesting potential consequence of this change. Once a large part of the community begins cycling through a mission during its lifetime, it may become more difficult to justify a 6 to 12-month embargo. As I've commented before, this embargo is one of the main motivators of researchers who work on missions. It allows you justify the calculus of giving up your time in the short term for long-term gains in a professional context. Without that embargo, mission participation may become less attractive to those looking to aggressively advance their careers.

These are complex problems without simple answers, we're just going to have to try a few things and see what ends up working. But one thing is clear, if a major mission, such as EJSM finds that lifetime tenure for science team members is not justifiable, then this is likely a practice that is on its way out. So, while it may not be possible for future researchers to follow the kind of path that Bob has had the opportunity to take, the process of spacecraft mission participation could be opened up to much wider segment of the community. I think that's something to be very pleased with.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Conference Notebook: DPS

This week I'm at the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) Conference in Pasadena, California. I'm excited because this is the first major planetary conference I've been to since I graduated nearly two years ago. In some ways it's a bit sad that I haven't been able to attend any of the big ones. No AGUFM (American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, held yearly in San Francisco, California during the middle of December), no LPSC (Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held yearly in Houston, Texas) and no DPS. LPSC in particular hurts, since I had a good streak of attendance going from 2004-2007 and since then I haven't been back. However, I see my attendance at DPS this year as evidence that things are on a bit of an upswing for me as I head towards my first true Planetary Science postdoc starting in December.

So what is the DPS? Well, technically, the division is part of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and all DPS members are members of the AAS as well. However, you might be surprised to learn that there is relatively little mixing between those who attend the big AAS meetings and those who attend DPS. This is in contrast to the situation over at the AGU, where the big conference (AGUFM) takes precedence. The reason for this lies in a strange twist of fate. In the United States, at least, planetary science has historically been associated with planetary exploration and shares a bit of a kinship with the human exploration program in NASA as being robotic precursors after a fashion. As such, planetary science has its own constituency down here, its own decadal survey, its own budgets, research institutions and granting programs and in some cases its own departments.

In Canada, planetary science is more of a subfield of many other fields. Thus there are glaciologists who study the polar caps of Mars, atmospheric scientists who look at the clouds, astronomers who study the dynamics. The main unifying trait, is that in Canada the work of planetary science is not conducted by dedicated planetary scientists as much as it is done on a part time basis by scientists trained in other fields. In practice this makes it difficult to assemble something called planetary science from its constituent parts. It also means that different fields of planetary science are more distant from one another in Canada and there is relatively little mixing. Where it would be trivial to answer questions across the field in some US departments, the insular nature of the beast in Canada makes it almost impossible to do this without switching departments or universities.

It's for this reason that DPS and LPSC are such treats. I look forward to a great week of catching up with old friends, making new collaborations and learning new science, getting inspired to do future work, learning about my career possibilities, and even canning a few interviews for ! We got off to a great start yesterday with the Early Career session, which highlighted one shortcoming of the granting system in Canada, its opacity. That gives me a strong action item for when I get back to see if I can decipher how to get funds.

With luck I'll be able to run some more updates this week, and there's a few posts I've been putting off that I hope to get to. I'd love to stay at chat, but I must run off to a session. Follow me over on Twitter @ArcticSaxifrage and the conference at large using #DPS2010.