Friday, December 21, 2012

Troubling Times in NASA R&A

UPDATE: NASA PSD Responds to the concerns raised by many within the Planetary Science Community!

I can still recall the shock and the dismay within the planetary science community when it was revealed in the President's request for 2013 that funding for Planetary Science in the US would fall by about $300 million, or about 20%. Certainly, those of us in the community foresaw declining mission selection rates. In particular, the Mars program was expected to be deferred by removing the money which was originally to be reinvested once MSL's funding profile dropped off. Additionally, horizons for the Discovery and New Frontiers programs have been pushed out significantly and there are no flagships in the works this decade aside from the still undefined Mars 2020 Mission.

Traditionally, the NASA Research and Analysis (R&A) program has filled in the gaps between missions, preventing the cyclic loss of talent and information that occurs between flight opportunities. This was seed capital used to foster the continued training of graduate students, postdocs, professors and soft money researchers as they looked deeper into already-acquired data. Thus, the program also did good work by enhancing the science return of missions past.

But with sequestration on the horizon, the PSD is forced to play conservatively and, correspondingly selection rates for R&A proposals have plummeted to the 10% level. Where before proposals ranked as low as good (3/5) might be chosen for funding, there are reports of rankings of very good to excellent (4.5/5) being denied. The effect of this change has been documented by the Planetary Science Institute's Mark V. Sykes and you can read the testimonials here. If we look at the "budget wedge" for planetary science presented at the 2011 LPSC conference we can get a better idea of one reason why selection rates have necessarily declined:

The 2011 Fiscal Planning Wedge for the Planetary Decadal Survey. The empty white space beneath the heavy black line was thought to be the space we were planning. We were wrong. The request for 2013 nearly follows the colored bars down to below $1.2 billion forcing either no new starts or heavy reductions. We're only now finding out what that number means. Sequestration forces additional cuts.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Small Insight from the 2012 Canadian Space Summit

The team from Concordia shows off their award-winning university-built 3-U cube sat. We heard from this group and many others at the 2012 CSS about the possibilities for exploring our planet and our solar system with small spacecraft not unlike the one pictured above.

A few weeks ago I was participating in the 2012 Canadian Space Summit in London, Ontario (full disclosure: I am on the conference organizing committee). We had a great week full of interesting talks. The highlight speakers were my PhD Advisor, Peter Smith who spoke at the banquet and the last man (and only geologist) to walk on the moon, Harrison Schmitt - the subject of a great deal of media and the host of a separate ticketed lecture.

But one emerging theme is a problem that is particularly acute for Canada - how do we fund space exploration? Even countries with large coffers dedicated to space, like the United States, or Inter-Governmental organizations such as ESA, often run into difficulties with getting their projects funded. As a result, you might be tempted to think that the only way a smaller country like Canada can get their flag into space is by partnering with others and contributing a small piece of a bigger mission.

While this has been a winning strategy, so far, I don't think we need to limit our ambitions here. And neither did a number of presenters at the CSS. We heard several talks on an emerging field: planetary nano-spacecraft or what I might call nano-exploration.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

3 years 11 months and 11 days


"Like a Tree With the Passage of Time" 
That's the motto of my undergrad alma mater. That's where it all began. 
I now find myself back in that same city ready for a new start. 

I can now reveal to you that my stated purpose when I began this blog has now been achieved. As of December 1st, 2012, I will be an Assistant Professor, tenure track, at York University. Thus my time in postdoc purgatory will come in just shy of four years. Somehow it feels like it was much longer. Certainly, the period was a not a great one for my mental state. However, if you deal well with uncertainty you probably would manage better than I did.

In particular, I had the issue of not really knowing where I fit in an academic department. What is a planetary scientist? Is that an astronomer who stays close to home? A geologist who travels far? Or maybe an engineer who gets their inspiration by looking beyond their machines? Really it's all of these things and yet none of them exclusively. That's a problem for many traditional departments. But now the market has spoken and its answer in my case is loud and clear - I'm a Renaissance Space Engineer. I couldn't be more excited to join the talented group that will help create the Lassonde School - how often, as an academic, do you get to contribute to build something novel at the organizational level?

I'll have more to say about Lassonde later, but given that some of you may actually be reading this record to figure out how you yourself can proceed from PhD to something permanent, I'll distill (as best I can) my advice on what worked for me below, under the cut. As always your mileage may vary and in a very real sense, given the balkanization of science and engineering, my case may not be applicable to yours.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

In advance of Landing

Two days out, and the excitement is palpable. And I doubt I'm the only one on the edge of their seat. It's not just the science team, or even the whole MSL team or all of NASA. Heck, I was stopped on the street today by a random, interested member of the public just because of the MSL logo on my backpack. It's a surreal experience and just one more example of how this mission has captured the imaginations of so many people.

I can't help but to think back and to compare the upcoming landing with my experience with Phoenix just over four years and 2 months ago. So much has changed since that time, yet in some ways I've come full circle. Like with that mission there is some worry, but mainly what I feel is anticipation. After all, the rover is now on the verge of fulfilling its own design, of doing what it was meant to do. And so, all the concern peels back and I, like everyone else, simply wish our little spacecraft well.

One difference between now and four years ago is my online profile. In May of 2008 I didn't have a blog or a twitter account. I didn't give public talks or speak with media as I have done over the last little while. And in effect, that's the state to which I expect I will be returning, vis-a-vis the mission, for at least the next month or two. In short, as it relates to MSL, expect this space to go dark.

The reason for that is simple: this is not my story to tell. Spreading the word about the mission is one thing, and I was happy to help this effort any way that I could. However, with the trial-by-fire that is EDL, we enter a new stage in the development of the MSL Story. In the coming days, weeks and months you'll hear a great deal about the Systems and Science of Curiosity. But you won't hear about it from me. You won't see those things written or commented upon here. I owe that much to the thousands of men and women who have toiled long hours designing, developing and bringing Curiosity to life over the past eight years and who have done me the honour of adopting me into their ranks.

Yet I too will have a part to play in the drama that will be unfolding. That's why today I did something I should have done four years ago: I went and bought myself a leather-bound diary with acid-free paper. As suggested by Emily Lakdawalla, I'll be writing down my thoughts as the mission progresses. And I know many others will be doing the same. I expect that it will be a story that gets better with age and reflection as it develops in the fullness of time. Perhaps in a couple of years we can all sit down and together write Curiosity's memoirs.

Of course, there is also a selfish reason for doing this. Namely, that I want to remember. I know well what operating on Mars Time can do to a person. The perceived temporal distance of events stretches out like a piece of taffy until things that happened just a few days ago can be viewed only dimly, as if across a vast chasm. I remember well how I felt while working Phoenix, but I want that ability to remember specific details and to have that record to look back upon, later in life.

So with that, best of luck to you, Curiosity, for the challenge that awaits. I look forward to joining you on the other side for the adventure yet to come.

Monday, July 23, 2012

State of the Blog (2011-2012)

Yes, folks it's time again for the annual year-in-review here on HTWT. I'll link to last year's post so that when I come back here next year I can follow the digital trail of breadcrumbs into my own past. Without fear of reversal, I can say that this past year was truly an exceptional one on just about every level. Right now things are really looking up for the future and I hope that my current streak continues.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Crisis in Canadian Science?

 The Experimental Lakes and the PEARL Arctic research lab are two examples of recent cuts to Scientific Research by the Government of Canada. Should Canadian Scientists be concerned about the future of research?

"Read the directions, even if you don't follow them" is a famous maxim from a 1997 column in the Chicago Tribune written by Mary Schmich which has direct relevance to the relationship between Science and Politics. There is concern here in Canada that the advice of Scientists is increasingly ignored and even unwanted in Political Circles.

For several years, a low-level conflict between the current Canadian federal government and many scientists has been brewing. However, late last year and early into the spring this sentiment has crystalized and broken out into the mainstream. There have been layoffs at many government ministries, talk of eliminating research scientists from government payrolls entirely, an increased emphasis on controlling the message within the public service, the termination of the position of Science Advisor and the closing or de-funding of several significant pieces of scientific infrastructure including Insite, the long-form census, the ozone network, the PEARL arctic research station and the experimental lakes.

I've been wondering for a while now just what I could contribute to this debate. There have been many petitions (ELA, PEARL, Census, Ozone). But with yesterday's protests in Ottawa and today's column in Maclean's by Julia Belluz, I feel like I can no longer be a simple signatory to such documents. In short, there are a few things worth emphasizing at a deeper level then the simple decrying of specific actions by the current government. A step back and a more thoughtful approach is required.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Vastly Different Worlds (WW114 - Season One Finale!)

Season One of Western Worlds clues up tonight with my interview of Dr. Jaymie Matthews (pictured above) of the University of British Columbia. We'll be back on Monday, July 30th for Season Two, starting off with a discussion of the Mars Science Laboratory.

In his work as an anthropologist, the famed scientist Jared Diamond is known to express his fondness for the idea of a "natural experiment." What he means by this is that some systems are so large and complex and the ramifications of changing variables so severe that it would be impossible to simulate these systems in the laboratory or the real world. So, instead, what we do is to look at the world around us and its history. For significant events, if we can determine their proximate and ultimate causes and understand the variables in play we can understand the relationship between cause and effect. For instance, we don't need to go out and remove all the trees from an island to understand what deforestation does to the culture living there - the history of Easter Island tells us this.

Similarly, in Astronomy we are lucky that there are examples of just about every structure that exists both today and, through the finite speed of light, in the past. We didn't have to reconstruct the positions of all the near stars to understand what a galaxy looks like from all angles, there are examples of every type in every orientation out there, just waiting to be observed. And we understand the life-cycle of stars from birth to death even though the process requires more time than life has been on Earth because we can see examples of every stage out there.

Similarly, we can use Exoplanets to tell us what our own solar system and our own planet would be like were the conditions a little bit different. Earlier this year we heard from Nikku Madhusudhan about what might happen if Carbon exceeded Oxygen in abundance. This episode, we explore the full gamut of possibilities from planets both nearer and further from their parent stars than we, some with highly eccentric orbits that give them phenomenal seasons. This tells us about climate in general and its ability to regulate planetary temperature and weather. For that reason, this episode is entitled "Vastly Different Worlds." And like what we have learned from studying the clouds on Jupiter and, yes, the dunes on Mars, it can improve our understanding of our own planet and the processes that affect the world we experience.

It's a great way to cap off our season! And like the interview with David Southwood, there's a little something for everyone in the work of Dr. Matthews. As usual, my on-air intro is under the cut. After you listen to this episode, be sure to head on over to our Survey and help to pick out what episodes we'll air over the summer. Have a great couple of months and don't forget to make World Enough and Time for us again the week before Curiosity lands on Mars 10 PM EDT on Monday, July 30!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Puzzle of Winds

The composition "Seasonal Winds" by my favourite artist and photographer Greg Martin imagines what 400 km/h would look like ripping down Chasma Borealis on Mars. It's too bad such atmospheric phenomena don't exist since they make for such great art and literature. However, the story of how this misconception has propagated itself is an interesting study in the history of planetary science. Go to http://www.experiencetheplanets.com/ to download a high resolution version of the above image.

This spring I set myself a puzzle to solve. As an atmospheric scientist working on Mars, you get used to hearing from other disciplines about the tremendous winds that this planet has to offer. "They happen twice each year as the winter hemisphere moves from North to South and back again - all that CO2 sublimates and rushes towards the other pole." If not this story, then it is tales of some kind of a self-sustaining instability in the global dust storms which occur periodically. However it happens, this tremendous wind has been invoked to explain all manner of features on the surface of Mars.

By the mid 1990s, the existence of such winds was common knowledge extending even into the Science Fiction world. Two highly awarded novels - Greg Bear's "Moving Mars"and Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars" - both have major plot points where such winds are important. In the former, a large pressure wave kicked up by a dust storm and featuring supersonic winds disturbs Casseia Majumdar and her new husband on their honeymoon and, temporarily, provides the environmental conditions necessary for reviving past martian life. In "Red Mars" colonists Nadia and and Arkady are nearly killed when their dirigible is thrown off course in an intense dust storm. When they go outside to repair damage, they can barely stand up, even though the pressure is only 12 milibars (hence the winds must be enormous!) Both of these occurrences are significant because they postulate Mars as it exists today, not some distant terraformed future.

That would be all well and good except these winds don't actually exist! The highest windspeed recorded by our landed missions, our best determinant of ground level windspeed on Mars, was 16 m/s (~58 km/h or 36 mph) for the Phoenix Lander. You might say: "that's all well and good, but Phoenix only lasted 152 sols during northern summer, a fairly quiescent time." You would be right, however, the much longer 2245-sol (~7 Earth Year/3.5 Martian Year) Viking Lander missions saw the entire seasonal cycle several times over and were operating during the two "great dust storms of 1977." Their record shows no windspeed in excess of 19 m/s (68 km/h or 43 mph).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Vote for your favourite episodes!

Next week is the season one finale of Western Worlds! We're taking a break until July 30 when season 2 begins. But until then we'd like to know what episodes you liked best and which ones you would like to hear rerun over the break. To vote for your favourites, click on the link below:


Thanks again for listening and I'm looking forward to season two.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Practice makes Perfect (WW113)


Dr. Dean Eppler, space suit expert and 2011 Science Lead for the NASA Desert RATS Team sat down with our own Marianne Mader at LPSC this year and you'll have the chance to hear that interview later on tonight. Much of what they talked about focused on something called "Analogue Missions" which are practice space missions completed on Earth. Why would you want to hold such an exercise? Well, for one thing it's much cheaper to conduct a space mission on the Earth and much safer for the astronauts. That means that you can try lots of different tools and techniques to figure out what works and what doesn't.


This is important because astronaut time is extraordinarily valuable. Say you could design, build and deliver a capable lunar rover for ~$1b and that the median expected lifetime on the lunar surface was something like 5 years. With 8 hours of ops per day (average), that gives us an hourly cost of something like $100k/hour. However, a mission to the moon for two weeks (~70 hrs EVA) might cost something like ~$10b/astronaut. So that's about $100m/hour for humans. If we assume a Phoenix-like multiplier, i.e. that 152 sols of operations could have been conducted in a couple of hours by humans, you get that human time is ~600 times more productive than is robot time. Call it an even 1000 times. Thus, the cost per datum gathered is about the same, but an hour of human time wasted is equivalent to over four months of robot time wasted, so even a small cost in human time is extremely expensive. Worse, you loose the contemplation time that robots give you to convince yourself and the rest of the science team that you are making the correct decisions.


One of the focuses for D-RATS is to find ways to make that human time more productive through innovative use of technology. Often they test combinations of different tools, rovers and humans working cooperatively and so on. It's a challenging problem on many levels and D-RATS aren't the only team trying to improve our knowledge here. We've done a couple of analogue missions here at Western for the CSA which I am proud to say I've been a part of as a Co-Investigator (and have written about before in this space). You can read more about our activities at our "Anablog" and our first paper discussing how we ran mission control can be found here. If you're in the D.C. Area, why not go and listen to WW Co-Host Raymond Francis talk a little bit about how rovers and humans interacted at the GLEX Conference?


Want to know more? My intro is under the cut and don't forget to tune into Western Worlds on Astronomy.fm at 10PM tonight after 365 Days of Astronomy and the News.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Swords into Plowshares (WW112)

Ralph Mcnutt 

Ralph McNutt (pictured above) has had a long and successful career working as a scientist on a great many missions from Voyager through Cassini to New Horizons and his current role as project scientist for Mercury Messenger. Like previous guest David Southwood, his specialty is space physics, a field with broad applicability across the solar system.

However, when Dr. McNutt spoke with our co-host Raymond Francis at this year's LPSC, it was on a different, yet no less important topic. What Voyager, Cassini and New Horizons have in common is a reliance on nuclear power to provide electricity to their computers, scientific instruments and onboard systems. You just can't do deep space exploration without these nuclear batteries, powered by Plutonium 238. However, production of Pu-238 stopped many years ago in the United States and current stocks to run spacecraft have been purchased from the Russians.

However, the lack of Pu-238 is starting to approach crisis levels. This is an issue that the DPS has spoken out strongly about for several years. As such, the US Congress has sought ways to restart the production of this material domestically for spacecraft usage. Unfortunately, agreements between the DoE and NASA have kept falling through. For many years the language Authorizing NASA to restart production was set-out in law, but no money was Appropriated for that purpose (The US has a two-stage budget process in which not everything an agency is legally permitted to do is actually funded). This year, it looks like things might be changing with NASA expected to receive approximately $15 million for plutonium restart in the president's budget request.

In the meantime, the plutonium shortage has helped spur the interest of engineers to try to improve the efficiency of Nuclear Batteries. Interestingly, the decay energy of Pu-238 goes almost entirely into creating heat which means that they are particularly helpful when thermal energy is what is ultimately desired. But the main problem is that by moving around heat to keep components warm, or to increase the efficiency (such as with a sterling cycle) you introduce moving parts with non-infinite duty cycles. Just like the human heart, all such components will ultimately stop beating, bringing the missions they power to an end.

We don't always focus on the technical aspects here at WW, but this episode is a fascinating study of a critical technology for space exploration and is not to be missed. You can find a copy of the episode here and, as usual, my intro is under the cut.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Diamonds on the Blackest Velvet (WW111)


Tonight's guest on WW is Nikku Madhusudhan (shown above in a photo by Beverly Schaefer) as we return once more to the topic of extrasolar planets. It's a fascinating field that has grown in leaps and bounds since the first planets were observed around pulsars in the ealy 1990s and around a main sequence star in 1995. Since that time our techniques have expanded and the variety of planetary systems is added to almost daily.

Astoundingly, we can now deduce details about the atmospheres of some of these extrasolar planets, but only the ones relatively large and relatively close-in around brighter stars. But even in this small subset of the infamous "hot jupiters" there is amazing variety. A good part of Dr. Madhusudhan's fame comes from confirming the existence of planets for which Carbon is more abundant than oxygen. Such places were long theorized to exist because Oxygen and Carbon are produced in similar quantities by the proceses in stars that create elements heavier than hydrogen. This "nucleosynthesis" produces a characteristic pattern that we can observe in the abundances of elements within our own solar system (from wikipedia and shown below):


Take a close look. You'll notice a few things. First, the elements created in the big bang, Hydrogen and Helium Dominate - we have not yet come close to processing all of the material in the universe through stars. Secondly, you'll notice the stair-step pattern favoring even-numbered elements. This comes from the relative ease of building up heavier nucleii from "alpha particles," helium-2 nucleii and the greater stability of the nucleii thus formed. But the abundances fall off as the atomic number increases because it gets harder and harder to form larger and larger nucleii since more energy is required. In particular, beyond Iron, nuclear fusion does not yeild any energy, and so you get a pile-up that allows Iron to stand up above the pack.

What about Carbon and Oxygen? Well, these are synthesized largely through an efficient nuclear fusion process called the CNO-cycle in stars a bit more massive than the sun and up. Depending on the specific circumstances of the stellar furnace in question, either one of Carbon or Oxygen can come out a bit ahead. In the building of our own solar system, it was Oxygen. And so we have a solar system whose solids are composed mainly of ices (H2O) and silicate-bearing rocks (SiO4). By weight, Oxygen is not just a significant part of our atmosphere but comprises nearly 60% of the Earth's solid matter too.

Had the balance been different, a system of carbon compounds with different properties would have resulted. By showing that such systems do, in fact, exist Dr. Madhusudhan has expanded our view of the universe and the kinds of variety that exists out there. I hope you enjoy listening to his interview as much as I did. As always, a transcript of my intro is under the cut.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Tempted by the Fates (WW110)

Dr. Catherine Neish stands atop one of the Kelso Dunes in the Mohave Dessert, California. Check out her website to learn more about her publications, activities and to view a slideshow of Catherine in front of things geologic.

We come now to our tenth episode. For those of you who think in astronomical terms, that means that we have increased our repertoire by an order of magnitude since our first presentation! For our tenth, we introduce a new interviewer to the mix - Marianne Mader. Her choice of interview subject is one whom I know well. My office mate for nearly four years at the University of Arizona and Titan expert, Dr. Catherine Neish of APL at Johns Hopkins. Those regular readers of this blog will know that nearly two years ago, I interviewed Dr. Neish for our sister program "York Universe." Luckily for us, she has always had time to speak to us and to you about the goings on out at Titan and close to home with our Moon.

In that respect, Dr. Neish is somewhat unique, someone who works across the solar system, but mainly on satellites instead of their primaries. However, Titan is large enough that it can be considered a world in its own right and in many ways is as interesting if not more so than some full-fledged planetary bodies. I've always been impressed by Dr. Neish's ability to make a lasting contribution no matter where she goes and you can include our analogue space missions here at Western University in that mix. Last summer, she was an integral member of Mission Control.

The ILSR Analogue Team relaxes at the Grad Club following the successful completion of week one of operations. Your humble narrator is located at the end of the table, clutching a green concoction. Catherine is at right (my left). Incidentally, WW Co-Host Raymond Francis can be seen at my right and Marianne Mader is second from the right.

As usual, my introduction can be found beneath the cut.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Across the Disc of Crimson (WW109)


Dave McCarter of the London Chapter of the RASC (pictured above) will be our guide this week on Western Worlds. Co-host Alyssa Gilbert spoke to him about the real star of the show, seen below!


The 2004 Venus transit as photographed in Hong Kong by Wikipedia user Mswggpai.

The transit isn't to be missed - there won't be another one for over a century, so if you're located in an area that will have a view, be sure to take it in. While I should point out that you should never look directly at the sun without serious protection for your eyes, if you do have a pair of welder's glasses, you should be able to see the spot that is Venus with the naked eye. To find out if you'll be in line to take a look, find a map below courtesy of Fred Espenak of the Goddard Space Flight Centre via Wikipedia, once more:


If you're not in the light toned areas, why not consider a trip overseas? If you do decide to take in this astronomical sight, arid locations are especially helpful. In 2004 Dave caught the transit on the island of crete and once again he will be close to the centre of the transit window on the big island of Hawai'i on the summit of Mauna Kea. Listen to our interview to hear some of Dave's tips or look below the cut for Alyssa's guide to ressources on the transit and my introduction!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Upon a Peak in Darien (WW108)


Our guest on WW this week was David Southwood. He and I both had the joy of working on the Huygens probe in 2005. Of course, our participation on that project was at very different levels - he as senior project leadership with ESA for many years, myself as a graduate student in the US contingent of the DISR Instrument. I was probably amongst the most johnny-come-lately participants, having started in 2004 on a project that had existed in one form or another since 1972.

I mention Huygens because Professor Southwood lists that mission amongst the highlights of his career. However, he has participated in more scientific projects, space missions and scientific endeavors and has won more awards and accolades than I can possibly list in this space. To give you a flavour, he has worked on missions to every classical planet in the solar system and astronomical projects beyond it, was part of the magnetometer team that discovered evidence of liquid water on Europa, led the Cassini Magnetometer Team and has contributed greatly to the study of space weather.

I was extremely fortunate to get the chance to speak with Professor Southwood as he was in Toronto a few weeks ago to give the annual J. Tuzo Wilson lecture at the University of Toronto. I also need to thank his host, Dr. Nigel Edwards (a former prof of mine, back in my undergraduate days) for fitting WW into his and David's schedule at the last possible moment. We and our listeners appreciate your flexibility and accommodation!

What makes this interview one of my favourites is that Professor Southwood really epitomizes what we are trying to do here on Western Worlds. Not only do we want to share the Science of other worlds with you, but also how we get there (Engineering/Space Technology) how the decisions about where to fly get made (Space Agency/Space Politics) and how all of that comes back around to you, our listeners (Education/Public Outreach).  Professor Southwood has led a hybrid career that has combined the best of all of these worlds, and I for one, will take his advice to heart. If I can achieve in my own career even a few percent of what he has been able to do in his, I will count it a resounding success.

If you missed our broadcast, fear not! You can download a copy of Professor Southwood's interview from the WW webpage here. As usual, my introduction is under the cut.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Explorers in the Old Fashioned Sense (WW107)


(Above) Roger stands next to a mock-up of the MSL Rover "Curiosity" The mast "head" which contains the LIBS aperture is up and to the right of Roger.
(Below) The ChemCam instrument in the lab. The LIBS aperture is to the right.

Arguably, the Planetary Science Event of the Year (TM) is going to be the landing of Curiosity on Mars on August the 5th. Tonight we have an interview with the leader of one of the instrument teams - Dr. Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Wiens leads the ChemCam instrument which includes the infamous LIBS laser (that cyclops eye on top of the rover's mast). I'm hoping to use this instrument extensively to perform atmospheric sensing work so I know I will be talking a great deal with Dr. Wiens over the months and years which follow.

Since my introduction goes into detail about the rover, I'll leave it there for today. As usual, you can find that introduction under the cut.



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Landscape in the Sky (WW106)


This Monday past marks the first interview of Parshati Patel, as she becomes the fourth member of the WW crew to try her hand at interviewing! She certainly couldn't have picked a better subject then Dr. Travis Barman (pictured above) of the Lowell Observatory and the results speak for themselves. If you haven't had the chance to listen, drop by the WW page and pick up a copy of the interview!

The solar system has, for a long time, been our own backyard to astronomers - out beyond our home but not as exotic or enticing as that which lies beyond. But, exo-planets are an interesting cutting-edge convergence of Planetary Science and mainstream Astronomy each of which counts this field as their own. It's a productive rivalry with "Planetary Science" missions like Kepler, a space mission currently conducting a planetary census, coordinating with "Astrophysics" telescopes on the ground to confirm discoveries of new worlds. The statistical results then get put into models, such as those of the Nice group, that help to tell us why our own solar system looks the way it does today. By understanding the initial conditions required to make our solar system "work" and how ours differs from others, we can get a handle on the process more generally.

It's a fascinating study and the explosion in planets over the last decade is nothing less than breath-taking. The expansion in techniques is no less so. While it may be awhile before we get to see them up close and know them the way we do our own solar system, Dr. Barman's direct images of exoplanets far from their parent stars brings to mind what Uranus and Neptune might have looked like a century ago. Who knows what the future in this fast-breaking field will bring? I hope you enjoy the episode, and, as always, my introduction is underneath the cut.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hazardous Journey (WW105)



This week's guest, Melissa Battler, was our CAPCOM on the Barringer Lunar Analogue Mission (BLAM). As the main link to the astronauts in the field she fulfilled a vital role and one very much appreciated by myself as the Flight Director (FD).  You can see a photo taken from that mission above in which Melissa is wearing her trademark headset (top) and below at her station, situated right next to the FD.

Some might be tempted to wonder, why have a single person dedicated to speaking with the astronauts at all? Why can't the flight director or Mission Control as a whole just speak to the astronauts? Well there are a couple of reasons. First, it makes sense for there to be a single point of contact with the astronauts, someone with whom they can build up a rapport. That way, they always know information is coming to them through a single channel - this removes the potential for conflicting instructions. Secondly, mission control can be a bit of a crazy place, even with the FD directing traffic, and it takes a special skill set to be able to filter through all the information passing back and forth. A stellar short term memory and an ability to understand what directives are simply proposed and which have been decided is definitely a requirement. I stepped in when Melissa had to leave the room and I can tell you - her job was not an easy one!

There is another more subtle reason that the CAPCOM role exists, by having a person dedicated to communicating with the Astronauts, they gain an advocate at Mission Control. It is for that reason that CAPCOMs are typically current or former astronauts themselves. They can put themselves in the shoes of the astronauts who, in turn, know that the CAPCOM understands their plight. Melissa was an excellent candidate to fulfil that role precisely because she has had so much experience simulating Mars missions in the past. That exploration is part of what makes her interview with Alyssa Gilbert so memorable.

But you can't forget about the science either, and Melissa was kind enough to share with us - and with you - her expertise with extremophiles that live in the high arctic in complex chemical environments. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. If you didn't have the chance to listen on Monday over at Astronomy.fm you can download a copy over at the Western Worlds webpage. And as always, my intro is under the cut.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Watcher of the Skies (WW104)

Tonight's WW features an interview with UWO's very own Paul Wiegert, an celestial dynamicist and asteroid hunter. Incidentally, he is the discoverer of Asteroid  172996 Stooke whose namesake we featured on last week's program ("The Map is the Tale"). Tonight's show also marks the debut of a new interviewer, Tyler August. Tyler is one of Paul's graduate students so he was really able to get into the meat of Paul's new discovery and his work. I hope you enjoy the show as much as I did!

As always, the intro is below the cut and don't forget to check out the WW page for links to past episodes and the audio of this one once it becomes available.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Map is the Tale (WW103)


Our third episode airs this Monday evening on AFM and features an interview with Phillip Stooke who sat down with producer and co-host Alyssa Gilbert. Stooke is one of several members of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration who is distinguished by having a namesake in orbit around the sun, asteroid 172996 Stooke. Stooke, a professor in the geography department at Western is known largely for his cartography. In particular, he enjoys combining his map making with a historical perspective, hence his 2007 map of lunar exploration and an upcoming map of Mars exploration, tentatively titled "From Spirit to Curiosity" with an anticipated release date of 2015. I'm very hopeful we can make his title a reality this summer with a successful landing of MSL!

It may surprise you to learn that Phil was the first professor at Western whom I met when I first showed up in December of 2010. When my supervisor was delayed by a meeting, I decided to go over to a lunch-time gathering to discuss images from other planets. I brought a couple of photos taken by Cassini of Iapetus with me that fooled a number of the other students there. They really do look a lot like a frosted Mars. But very little gets by Phil and he correctly identified the moon with his first guess.

Later, he was the subject of a very interesting PSERF where he discussed ancient mapmaking on the Earth. Many of the so-called T-and-O maps showed landmasses that didn't actually exist. The reason for this? An ancient greek belief that the moon was a mirror that reflected the geography of the Earth. Hence my title and quote for this week in which I emphasize the storytelling role of mapmaking. If ever you need proof, just walk down the street and think about what those names on the street signs represent.

As always, Phil tells a fascinating story and his interview is no different. I'll leave you with that and my  recollection above to whet your appetite. As always, my introduction can be found beneath the cut.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our Coy Mistress (WW102)


Tonight's guest on Western Worlds is Paul Delaney. This time around, I had the pleasure of speaking with Paul in person. He and I go back a fair ways to the summer of 2009 when I was working at Environment Canada. At the time I didn't know if I would ever work in Planetary Science or Astronomy again, and I was beginning to lose my connection to the field in which I was trained. So, I decided to see if there was some way in which I could use my PhD to engage with the public and rekindle my own passion for planetary. 

I emailed around to various departments, planetaria and observatories to see if there was some way I could be of use. As you might expect, most chose not to reply while others told me that they were doing well and needed no help. But Paul got back to me, invited me out to the observatory and the rest is history. Today I have a very fruitful collaboration with the York University Observatory that is almost three years old.

It was also Paul that gave me my introduction to the world of AFM. I started out as a guest on "Live from York U" (the precursor to "York Universe"). When that went well, I was asked to become a regular co-host on the program. But with the move to Western, it was time for me to strike out on my own. Again, I had the full support of Paul and he midwifed the pitch that Alyssa and I made to AFM that was ultimately accepted as "Western Worlds."

The title above for this particular episode is fitting for several reasons. As a dear friend of the show, we mean to evoke Paul's quiet contribution. But the title is also meant to pay homage to my WEaT speaking tour on which Paul got me started last year. That was an especially successful endeavor in which I learned that I could really enjoy sharing my enthusiasm and expertise with the public. The closing words of each show will continue this tradition.

So won't you join us tonight? I'll be there at 10 PM ET, 3 AM UTC on Astronomy.fm along with a friend who helped to make it all possible. You can find the text of my intro is behind the cut.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Western Worlds off to a great start!

This past monday, we had our big debut and I need to thank you all for listening in. Our producer over at AFM crunched the numbers today and estimates that our first episode had a listenership of nearly 20,000 people! That astounds me - I can barely believe it! So thanks for listening in. And thanks again to York Universe for their great lead-in! I, and the rest of the WW team, will do our best to continue to provide you with an engaging look into planetary science and exploration along with the people who practise it.

If you missed our first episode, you can download a podcast of WW101.

Wondering what the first one was all about? Well wonder no more! My introduction can be found beneath the cut. Don't miss us next week on Monday when we'll have Paul Delaney on the show.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Introducing: Western Worlds

The short-form logo for the newest AFM*Original program, "Western Worlds."

For those of you who enjoy York Universe (you can check out our new website here) I am happy to tell you that there is a spin-off show on the way and it starts at 10 PM ET on Monday, February 27th! The name of the show is "Western Worlds." Here's the format: the show is thirty minutes long and each will feature an interview with an engineer, researcher or educator working in the planetary sciences as interviewed by one of our capable co-hosts. That's the first twenty minutes. The last ten minutes will feature a round table with several co-hosts as we draw upon our own individual expertise to understand what the interview subject's work means to each of us.

The show is being co-produced by Alyssa Gilbert of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at the University of Western Ontario and by Michael Foerster at Astronomy.fm . I'll be doing the day-to-day showrunning. We've also got a great crew of undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate scholars who will be generating the interviewing, editing and discussion content that we will share with you all each and every week.

We've got several episodes which are nearing completion and I will be delivering these to AFM this week. As a Canadian Planetary Scientist, I'm excited to have a radio home all our own and I look forward to sharing all the great work being done within our community with you all every Monday night!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Presentation and some MSL Preliminaries

The cover slide for my upcoming presentation on MSL, the 2012 kick-off to the Planetary Science and Exploration Research Forum (better known as PSERF) at the University of Western Ontario's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX). Check it out this Thursday, January 12 at 12:30 PM in Biological and Geological Sciences Building room 1084.