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.

Somehow, despite being in this business since 2003, I had somehow managed to avoid DPS until last year. Based on what I saw there, I really was missing out all those years. DPS is an interesting venue for several reasons. First, the scope of DPS tends to be broader than the other major conference on the planetary calendar: LPSC. While LPSC tends to, de facto, focus more on the terrestrial planets and surface processes, DPS draws in people working in the outer reaches of the solar system and exoplanetary researchers. This makes the conference a little more tractable to a Martian, like myself. It also allows me to expand my horizons a bit more than does LPSC.  Secondly, for some reason, the smaller attendance of DPS seems to have less turn-over compared to LPSC. This can make it feel a little more like a community event.

I'm really looking forward to the conference and my first joint ESA-NASA night. Will we finally find out more about how the budget and how the Mars program will shake out? Stay tuned to this space for the answer! As the PSD budget contracts in the coming years, these sorts of international partnerships will become increasingly significant. It's also going to be great to hear about the research being done across the pond and to understand better what opportunities might exist for employment. The conference partnership with Europlanet will be very interesting to explore. 

I'll be live-tweeting as much as I can manage and will post updates in this space if anything interesting occurs. While I will make a report on our new show, YorkUniverse, over on when I get back, I don't anticipate taking any interviews. However, this could easily and quickly change, so if there's something you'd like to say to our 2000 weekly listeners out there, by all means, drop me a line!

With the rest of this space, I'd like to give a quick preview of the results I'll be presenting:

The ILSR Mission Architecture

All deployments have now been completed for the ILSR analogue mission (previously reported on here, here and here) and the time has come to analyze what went well and what could have gone better. As a part of this effort, I will be discussing the Mission Control Architecture we employed during the middle deployment to the Sudbury impact structure. This was an analogue of a lunar sample return done on the cheap - with one relay orbiter and one landed rover which could gather samples to return to a stationary ascent vehicle.

For our architecture, we started with the Mars Exploration Program's tried and tested format. But we needed to make some changes! The biggest of these was to effectively divide our Mission Control team into "platoons" representing different processes. This subdivision of responsibility changed the way buy-in was achieved with the team, but it allowed each process to be more flexible. This division allowed us to make decisions rapidly and respond to each two-hour command cycle effectively.

The other major conclusion is with regards to the rover - we found that having a vehicle capable of creating a branching path is ideal for a situation in which samples need to be returned to a centralized ascent vehicle. The ability to easily return to a spot on a pre-existing network enables parallel investigations of multiple sites from the large to the small scale and is remarkably similar to the operating strategy for the Phoenix Robotic Arm. By adopting this parallel investigation strategy we can perform down-selection exercises which give assurance that not only are our samples appropriate, but that they represent the best samples possible.

Atmospheric Measurements of Water Ice and MSL

The second poster is an interesting gamble, after a sort.  It describes some ideas that myself and my team had as we were considering the MSL spacecraft earlier in the year. While MSL does not focus on atmospheric measurements, there are some interesting synergies between the imagers and the LIBS package which suggest some really interesting investigations which could look into surface-atmosphere interactions involving water ice. Each of the proposed investigations has been validated using data from other landed spacecraft, especially Phoenix.

But these don't just apply to MSL. The 2018 European Exo-Mars rover (or a combined NASA-ESA MAX-C/Exo-Mars rover) would also be able to complete several of these investigations. Furthermore, we want to advocate pre-processing of atmospheric measurements on-board landed spacecraft. On Phoenix, our coverage of the changeable sky was less than 1 observation for every 10,000 possibilities. The reason for this is that data budgets are limited and investigation of the ground, deservedly, takes priority. 

However, given that the martian sky often exhibits cloud-forms which lend themselves well to being reduced to angular speed and average spectral ratios, we can achieve much greater coverage in time and space for the same data budget. This technique would also give a greater probability of detecting anomalous events, such as precipitation/virga, convection and wind shear. These interesting cases would be kicked out by the software as being unprocessable and would be returned to Earth whole.

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