Sunday, December 18, 2011

Another Good Omen?

The launch plume from MSL's Atlas-V. The input of water vapor into the normally dry mesosphere (at altitudes of around 80km) causes very high ice-water clouds known as "noctilucent" clouds to form. We contemplate the shapes we see in the sky and like the ancient Romans, trying to read auspices, we hope to glean the relevance to our own future of such ephemeral and changing patterns.

On the morning of November 26, as we were boarding our busses to head to the MSL Launch viewing area near the VAB, the brilliant sunrise lit up the light, misty rain we had passed through on the causeway over towards cape canaveral. The refraction through the particles generated a vivid rainbow which seemed to touch the ground in the general direction of pad 41, where the Atlas-V rocket that MSL would ride on its way to Mars was being prepared for departure. We took it as a good omen, and a few hours later, everything went right with the launch.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Meet the Team

My UWO MSL Team. From left to right we are Raymond Francis, Emily McCullough and John Moores. David Choi is not shown, but you can take a look at him below.
Photo credit: Mitch Zimmer.

As of last Wednesday I can say that I am a Participating Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. That mission launched successfully last Saturday and we're now on our way to Mars. In the meantime, we have work to do. There are models to test, training for operations to complete and data reducing software to write. I won't pretend that I can get this all done by myself in the next eight months. Luckily, I don't have to. I've got a great team behind me and I wanted to help to shine a spotlight on them and what we hope to accomplish together - they deserve it!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Words just cannot describe this...

So I won't even try. 
Mars Science Laboratory is shown here in this picture I took at the parking lot of OFB-1 (our shelter in case of a launch failure), near the VAB at Kennedy Space Centre and 6 miles from pad 41 at 10:02:09.2 AM on Saturday, November 26, 2011, 9 seconds after the main engines of the Atlas-V started it on its way to Mars. Best of luck, little rover - our thoughts, prayers and hopes go with you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Marking Time in an Astronaut's Playground

On today's tour we got the briefest glimpse from the coach of MSL sitting across the bay on pad 41. We're all suited up and ready to go!

I knew that I would only be able to stay in Florida for two days, so I picked the 25th and 26th in the hopes that the launch would occur within one of the first two windows. However, with the battery failure in the Atlas-541 abort system, the launch was pushed back one day to the 26th. This opened up a hole which SMD graciously filled by adding a Kennedy Space Centre tour to our schedule. We got to go to some interesting places that the public doesn't always get to see and we were pre-cleared for the launch and issued special MSL VIP badges. You can take a look at some of the pictures I took (now updated with images from launch day!) along the way today.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dreams and my Date with Destiny

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Amongst us planetary scientists, the answer is almost always: "An Astronaut." I can certainly understand the appeal. Who wouldn't want to explore an alien place and do it in the style with which we associate Buck Rogers, Captain Kirk or any of our other intrepid science fiction heroes?

But that doesn't quite capture what I imagined at that age. Let me explain what I mean by that statement by using an example. When I was much, much younger, my parents allowed me to stay up for one show alone - NOVA on PBS. It was a real treat because the show came on at 9:30 PM in Newfoundland which is pretty late for an eight year old. For those of you who know the show, there's quite a variety of topics that end up getting covered from medicine to military technology and everything in between. 

However, I did have a favourite episode. I just couldn't get enough of the results that came back from the Voyager probes. That story had everything: cutting edge tech, an audacious plan with dramatic twists and turns, and wonders revealed that felt so much more satisfying than anything from SciFi because they were actually real. Central to the whole process was the mission controller and that holy of holies for me, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yes, I was one of those eight year olds who dreamed of one day being part of JPL.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Getting Ready for the Cape

MSL Arrives at Launch Complex 41 inside its 5m fairing just before dawn on November 3. In the days ahead, this fairing will be mounted atop an Atlas-V 541 EELV for a launch to Mars no earlier than November 25. 

After some consideration, I've decided to bite the bullet, take a chance and head on down to Cape Canaveral next week to help see off Mars Science Lab (MSL). Better known as the Curiosity Rover, MSL is an exciting mission to Mars that will take a close-up look at the km-thick layered deposits inside Gale Crater. It's an exciting place to try for and the rover team is looking forward to a successful launch, landing and the scientific results that will be returned. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the spectacular night launch of Phoenix in 2008. So this will be my first launch, assuming that delays don't push the launch back until after I need to fly home.  While I have some idea what to expect from video and images, I have no idea what the experience will be like in person.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dr. Hojatollah Vali's CATP Seminar

 Astrobiology's favourite martian meteorite, Alan Hills 84001 is shown alongside a Magnetosome, a bacteria that fixes iron within its body to form magnetite and gives itself a free ride (or orientation) courtesy of the Earth's magnetic field. Could the tiny magnetite crystals serve as biomarkers long after the host is gone? And what is the origin of these kinds of features in ALH84001?

Recently, we kicked off the CATP  seminar series for the 2011-2012 season! The first talk of the year comes from McGill University's Hojatollah Vali. Dr. Vali's work is mainly concerned with the ability of iron-fixing bacteria to serve as biomarkers long after the bacteria have long since passed away. It's just one way that we can answer the question of how to detect past biological activity in the absence of well-developed morphologically distinct fossils.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Meanwhile at Europa, The Plot Thickens

 Divide and Conquer!
A concept for cutting JEO into two pieces brings an Europan Mission back towards the realm of the possible!

VK over at futureplanets reports on two mission proposals to Europa that were delivered to the recent OPAG meeting. The upshot is that by taking a page from the Mars Exploration Program, the outer planets folks have found that they can divide and conquer to explore. By cutting up the science goals and objectives of the US part of EJSM (known as JEO) into two missions - an Europan Orbiter and a Fly-by vehicle - it is possible to reduce the cost of the total missions by over $700 million. More importantly, it divides the program into much more manageable chunks, each of which costs less than $2 billion.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

2011 DPS Notebook

The large mechanical elephant of Nantes as photographed by wikimedia user dyhorus. Last week, planetary scientists from around the world gathered in the home city of Jules Verne. There we discussed our work and looked forward to the year ahead. In particular for us on this side of the pond, we got a look at a European community that is seeing more and more coordination of their activities and is resembling less an less a hodgepodge of individual moving parts.

This year I spent most of my DPS-chronicling energies over on Twitter. When this was combined with my poor adaptation to Central European Summer Time, the length of the sessions (which ran to 7PM every night) and a preference to use my late night hours in productive discussion with colleagues I did not get the opportunity to write much during the conference. I've finally arrived back home now and, as such, I present a minor information dump of my thoughts regarding the conference.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Another conference and more bad news looming

ESA's TGO - Last ditch negotiations are expected Monday in South Africa at the International Astronautical Congress to see if this mission can be saved.

As I was crossing the Atlantic, Universe Today was reporting some details about the negotiations between ESA and NASA with respect to the ESA Exo-Mars program. From the sound of the article, barring some last ditch maneuvering at this week's IAC meeting in South Africa, Trace Gas Orbiter could be nearing the end of the road.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting Ready for DPS 2011

My two posters for DPS 2011. On the left is a description of the ILSR Analogue Mission Control Architecture, on the right I discuss some suggested atmospheric measurements for MSL and argue for pre-processing on-board landed spacecraft in order to improve the temporal coverage of this dataset. You can get a preview of the Analogue poster here and the Atmospheric/MSL poster here.

It's almost time for the 2011 edition of the AAS's (American Astronomical Society's) Division for Planetary Sciences Conference, better know to us in Planetary Science as DPS. Next week, those of us interested in planets will descend upon the conference centre in Nantes, France. As happens every five years or so, this conference is being held in concert with our European counterparts, the EPSC (The European Planetary Science Congress) who have shared the organizing duties. This has meant, among other things, an extended abstract process which is reminiscent of LPSC's famous 2-page behemoths. Yes, these abstracts have abstracts! But the end result of that extra work is that we all have a better idea of what will be presented by our colleagues.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A new name in Radio

September 29 Update:

Shane Martin of has provided some really beautiful looking graphics! You can even make a weekly theme depending on who is presenting!

Other versions below the cut!

In Memoriam: A Tough Year for Planetary Science in Tucson

The ephemeral Ocotillo flower as photographed by the author in 2005 on Tower Peak in the Tucson Mountain Range. The spiny stalks of the Ocotillo appear dry and dead to the casual observer for most of the year, but within hours of rainfall they burst into life.

Until a couple of years ago, my planetary science heart belonged entirely to that little valley in Arizona tucked in between the Santa Catalinas, the Tucsons, the Rincons and the Santa Ritas. But it has been a difficult year for that city and for my alma mater. This past year has seen the passing of several great planetary scientists from the Tucson community both from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Teaching is in the air

A mathematics lecture, courtesy of Wikimedia user Tungsten. Teaching is an area I greatly enjoy and seek out the opportunity to contribute. This fall, I will get to do more of it than I ever have before!

One of the aspects of preparing for a life in academia in Canada vs the United States is the prominence accorded to teaching. In the US, you could probably get away with not teaching until after receiving an assistant professorship appointment as long as your research and grant acquisition were top notch. In Canada, you really need to have shown an ability to hold your own in front of a classroom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Springtime for Mars

It's that time of year again! The days are getting longer, the temperature is getting higher and there's a breeze in the air as the dry ice is evaporating away. Layers of terrain, stable for millenia are beginning to collapse in avalanches:

Hi-Rise catches the start of "Avalanche Season" on Mars.

Monday, September 12, 2011