Friday, August 28, 2015

State of the Blog (2014-2015)

A Swarm of accepted Papers, including two companions describing cube-sat micro-probes at Jupiter in IJSSE (and as pictured above in a simulation from co-author Isaac DeSouza).
It has been a banner year for publications!
So, here we are again - another year gone and a busy one at that. The entire pulse of six papers I submitted last year were ultimately accepted which saw my list of first author papers expand to 14*. Meanwhile, the predictions made by my GRL paper about Siding Spring were verified. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are a Mars-orbiting spacecraft) Siding Spring settled down substantially, coming in on the too quiet to be detectable for organic dusts side of the equation rather than the "Meteor Hurricane" that was predicted by early modelling. I find it fascinating that some comets flare so large while still so far away from the sun, but in that respect, Siding Spring is hardly alone.

The other papers included two which detailed a design for a potential mission to the clouds of Jupiter using several cube-sats to investigate the upper atmosphere. We published these in the new International Journal of Space Science and Engineering (IJSSE) as this publication is being led by York University's own George Zhu and we wanted to help build up the journal. These earned me a mention on Van Kane's excellent Futureplanets blog (part of the planetary society) and some pretty hilarious media stories.

The other three all had to do with martian dust and ice:

The first, published in Icarus, noticed an interesting effect in the lower atmosphere of Gale Crater - it's actually less dusty than it should be here, with the dynamics driving a clear zone of air near the surface. You can see this within each image the rover takes of the horizon - if it weren't for the clearing effect, the crater rim wouldn't be visible through the dusty haze.

 Three views of the North rim of Gale in this false-colour image show the view before the sol 100 dust storm, during and afterwards.

The second, published in Advances in Space Research, examined the seasonality of clouds visible near the rover. The dynamics of the atmosphere at Gale keeps it exceptionally dry, even for Mars! That means that, just like a thirsty traveler in the desert, most of the clouds we see pass us by high overhead - tempting us scientifically, but never coming down close to Curiosity. We do see multiple cloud decks, however, with differential motion (wind shear) and can place some limits on the size and shape of the cloud streets. Who knew that afternoons as a kid spent staring upwards at lazily drifting water droplets would pay off so well?

A Zenith movie acquired by the MSL NavCam on sol 49 showing high-altitude cloud over Gale Crater, Mars.

Third, a study which spent 7 years in progress is now in-press at Planetary and Space Science. In this publication we overcame some technical challenges to examine how dust sticks to an inclined surface as viewed by over 9,000 images of the Phoenix Wind Telltale indicator acquired during the 151 sols of the Phoenix Mission. Surprisingly, we only get a mono-layer of particles. This sets up an interesting optics test whereby we can directly investigate single scattering. In the past it hasn't been possible to do this because the dust on the ground and even on spacecraft comes in many layers, which complicates its scattering behavior and makes the surface dust look different from the atmospheric dust. It may seem like a minor point, but we were able to use that data to prove that the dust settling out of the atmosphere is exactly the same as the dust on the ground after all - no fancy ice hazes or weird particles are needed to explain the interaction of light with the martian atmosphere.

The dusty mirror of the Phoenix Telltale, one of the most photographed objects in the history of Solar System exploration.

It was also a busy year for the group. In July we welcomed a new postdoctoral fellow and next fall (2016) we intend to hire up another MSc student (4th year UGs, take note!). Over the summer, we worked with two undergraduate students and even one high school student and one of the undergraduates achieved a significant recognition at the AGU Joint Assembly in Montreal in May. If you're looking to see our work presented, we'll next be at the DPS Meeting in Washington, D.C. in November.

Blogging activity remained light. Still, I have some hope that I am getting close to steady state in my workload. I finished preparing my final new course, NATS 1530: the Science of Space Flight and Exploration in the spring despite some setbacks from the Great York Strike of 2015. This fall, I have the same two courses that I had previously taught in the fall of 2014 and 2013. The big news on that front is that neither course is being revamped this year, so I'll finally be able to figure out how much time I can devote to research and grant writing.

Overall the teaching alterations are small. Gas and Fluid Dynamics (PHYS 4120) remains exactly the same as last year and, my baby - PHYS 3070: Planets and Planetary Systems - is undergoing what might be best termed a refinement. The textbook from last year, courtesy of CSPI, is slightly modified to add in some figures from the literature that the class found particularly useful, to remove the Astrobio section which was a bridge too far** and to formally add in the observing manual for the big observing project. Yes, Virginia, this year we are going hunting for exoplanets once more!

Interestingly, the character of the class has changed a bit this year. The last two years, the overwhelming majority of those enrolled in PHYS 3070 were Space Engineers. This year its a balance between the engineers and the astronomers. Personally, I feel there is something for everyone here. The astronomers get a better appreciation a core part of their study: planets as physical systems. Meanwhile, the engineers get to understand why the scientists want to go and explore the solar system and the kinds of environments within which their vehicles are likely to end up operating. Moreover, the observing project gives them access to a more sophisticated CCD and Optical System than any other course, and this year I'm teaming up with Industry to sweeten the pot even further (hint, hint!) I'm really hopeful that by having both the scientific and technical perspective equally represented that both groups will learn from each other.

Oh, and what about this blog thing. Have I found a use for it yet? Well, the number of posts over the last year remained low: a meager 2 which discussed an article in the National Post for which I was interviewed and the excitement of the New Horizons encounter with Pluto. However, I think that if I have indeed hit steady state that this blog can become more frequent. Certainly, I should probably devote individual short posts to my published papers, rather than summarizing them in one paragraph once a year, as I did above. Certainly, when I used to do this it was popular. Also, it seems that outreach is also a useful topic - the 2013 article on how to build your own petrographic microscope is now the 3rd most read article on the site with 1000 views.
*For those interested in power-rankings amongst researchers my H-value has now hit double digits for the first time as of this year and is now 10. That is, of course, unless you believe Google Scholar, who thinks it is an astounding 22.
** A loss to be certain, but an unavoidable one

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