Thursday, November 7, 2013

How to make your own Petrographic Microscope

Note the colourful chondrules as viewed under cross-polarized light. Such views are used for mineral identification and demonstrate the interaction of light with real-world samples. You too can make your own petrographic microscope! Here's how...

Here at York, as we welcome our newest class of students, we're taking a few minutes to pause and start thinking more about our recruitment efforts in the future. One question that comes up often is how we can stand out in a sea of power point presentations. The solution - to try to be a little more hands-on by bringing in some props to illustrate some of the principles behind our work. To that end,  some of us have come up with little inexpensive demonstrations that capture a lot of what we do here in the Earth and Space Science and Engineering Department. Look for these at university nights at high schools everywhere in the coming months!

For my part, I put together a little, inexpensive rig that gives students a taste of a few different themes. Basically, you could call it the poor man's petrographic microscope. It presents a neat little introduction to some interesting optics with serious engineering applications as well as some earth science. By using meteorite thin sections as my specimen, I can springboard into planetary science and spacecraft and how we can use simple techniques to learn a great deal from the materials we encounter in our exploration.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

State of the Blog (2012-2013)

In some ways the last year since the 201-2012 state of the blog has been very quiet, certainly there have been relatively few posts. But in other ways, under the digital surface, it has been one of the biggest years yet for me! From the landing of MSL to my hiring by York University, it has truly been a year of monumental changes. Yet, my daily routine has changed little (well except for the added mechanics of teaching, granting and committee work) - I still head into York on the 196 and try my best to learn a bit more about the planets and how to unlock their secrets each day.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Surreal Summer

 A photo I took of myself last summer in Pasadena, CA while working on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission which appears on the cover of today's St. John's Telegram. Can you tell that I'd been doing Mars Time for a whole month by that point? In some ways, this summer has been almost as surreal as last summer.

It has been a long slog of a summer, but today there's a fallish tinge in the air here in Toronto and I can feel the semester beginning to creep up on me once again. One thing I never really grasped about this job when I took it was how many different components there are to being a prof.  I will admit that I was certainly aware of each of those things but not of how much time they can eat up, collectively.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Whither HTWT?

Readers of this space may have noted that posting frequency has really fallen off a cliff in the past year or so. There's a couple of reasons for that. First, as a full time faculty member at York, my workload has increased (or at least my ability to rearrange my workload has decreased). But more importantly, I'm still trying to sort out exactly what it is that I am trying to do with this space.

As you'll recall, this was originally meant to document the pathway from postdoctoral to something else. As that progressed, it came to include more topics in academia, research, planetary science and outreach. And while none of that has really changed, the fact that I could string up a "Mission Accomplished" banner on the topic of my original goal as of last summer has given me pause.

I've come to ask myself the question about several posts: not only is this something I could comment on, but is it something I should comment on? While I still feel like the same person, I am not so naive as to think that my comments can be dismissed as easily as they were before. In short, no longer do I represent myself alone (if ever that was true).

So what does this mean, going forward? Well, now that I have my feet under me a little bit, I think I can bend the trajectory of this space a little bit. After all, why not use it to weigh in on topics of concern in the work that I do, and to bring forward explanations of what that work is? I think that's the path I will try to tread. We'll see how effectively that can be done over the coming weeks, months and years.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dare Mighty Things, Canada

Canada was the 3rd country to build a satellite, Alouette, shown above (Photo courtesy CRC). From the very start, ours was an international effort, but one that has been fraught with many ups and downs as my recent reading of "Canada's Fifty Years in Space" (written by the resident of the neighboring office to mine at York, Gordon Shepherd) has revealed. On this anniversary, I can't help but wonder, what might the future hold?

2012 was a significant year for space exploration. Not only was this past year the 50th anniversary of the launch of Canada’s first satellite, Alouette, but it was also the 50th anniversary of the start of planetary exploration with Mariner 2’s voyage to Venus.

Our exploration of the planets continues to this day. Just this past August, as millions around the world watched, the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Curiosity achieved a daring landing on the dusty soils of Gale Crater in equatorial Mars. Over the next two years, the largest and most capable planetary rover ever developed will climb the five-kilometer high Mount Sharp and will search for the tantalizing clues to why a place that was once very much like the early Earth diverged to become a frozen desert. It will also help to determine if those early conditions might have led to life on our neighboring world.

I was fortunate to be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on the night of the landing. As I cheered them on from mission control, the team that successfully met the challenge of delivering Curiosity to Mars celebrated. A product of eight long hard years of work, the landing was a great triumph for the United States as a Nation and a message to the world that their country can still accomplish inspiring things.

In a small way it was a triumph for Canada as well. For a relatively meager investment of $17.5 million, Canada was able to provide Curiosity with an indispensable tool – the alpha particle x-ray spectrometer that will determine the proportions of different elements in the Martian soil. In turn, a team of Canadian scientists was welcomed into the fold.

Some might say that this is another example of Canada “punching above our weight” on the international stage. After all, Canadians make up over 5% of the team that will decide what the rover will do each day, despite having contributed less than 1% to its costs.

However, such a statement ignores the fact that, compared to the United States and even ailing Europe, our Space Program is relatively undersized both in absolute terms and proportional to our population. Despite drastically reducing its commitment in the years since Apollo, the US still spends nearly $60 per citizen per year in space, Canada under $7.

The present situation contrasts strongly with our history. Canada, the third nation to build and place a satellite in orbit, was an early achiever. From the Canadarm to RadarSat to the CCDs that captured Curiosity’s first glimpse of the Martian surface our expertise remains world class.

Furthermore, as a nation spread across a vast expanse we stand to benefit more than most from investments in space. Orbiting spacecraft are the only effective way that we can communicate across the distances that separate us, seek out the natural resource wealth lying undiscovered beneath our territory and monitor the health of our atmosphere, oceans, forests and cities in trust for future generations.

The innovations that improve our daily lives and our ability to accomplish these goals come from technologies that push the limits of what is possible. It is not a stretch to say that the techniques being pioneered today on Mars, where the conditions and challenges are more severe, will lead to tomorrow’s advances. If we do not, as a nation, choose to do these things, those spoils will not be ours.

Fortunately, robotic exploration is economical. We could actually lead! Had Canada been responsible for all aspects of building and launching Curiosity it would have cost us just a tenth of one cent for every tax dollar spent in Canada. Projects like this would give us a robust exploration program that would enhance our expertise at home and enable our space industry to become more competitive abroad while making us stronger partners in international projects.

But beyond our ability to calculate monetary costs and benefits, planetary exploration is an inspirational exercise. Today, these robots are the true explorers, their cameras give us a human perspective on worlds that until recently were nothing more than points of light in the sky. Such images are the reason why many of us choose Engineering and the Sciences as a career. Couldn’t we all take pride if spacecraft made right here at home were opening up new vistas of their own?

At the press conference that followed the touchdown, Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory cited the Olympics. He said that he felt his team had won the Gold medal with their picture-perfect landing. Like the Olympics, some cite Space Exploration as a dream not worth the cost. It is also said that, as Canadians, we pride ourselves on being a pragmatic people. But are Peace, Order and Good Government all there is to us? For my part, on the eve of our next 50 years in space, I feel Canada also can dare mighty things. 
Originally, I had intended to submit this as a Newspaper Op-Ed, but in the end decided that this was the better venue. I'd also like to thank a former professor of mine and a current colleague on MSL, Dr. Laurie Leshin, for help with editing.