Tuesday, July 19, 2016

State of the Blog (2015-2016)


This past year was all about expanding my boundaries . I wrote my first sole-author paper about some simulations of water moving on the Moon (a new body of work for me, scientifically speaking) and I teamed up with Ray Jayawardhana (Dean of Science here at York) to propose a $7 Million training program that brings together planetary scientists, exoplanetary astronomers and instrument designers. The program, which was selected, is called TEPS: Technologies for Exo/Planetary Science. It's going to be an exciting six years, as we ramp it up!

It finally happened. I've gone a whole year without posting once! I could use the usual excuses - (I've been busy!) - but the fact of the matter is that I just haven't felt that itch which is satisfied only by posting. Certainly, I've had plenty to write about, as you'll see below, and I'm actually coming around to the idea that it would be good for my career to talk more about my work and what my team is up to here in this space. But motivation is key, and that capital has all been allocated elsewhere this past year.

I went a bit crazy with grant applications and did quite well. Perhaps buoyed by my six papers from last year, everything I wrote in 2015 ended up being funded. I'd love to tell you all about it, but granting agencies have the right to announce successful applications and I respect that.

My success in the funding realm has led directly to a substantial increase in group size. Last year at this time, we were 1 Undergraduate, 1 PhD, 1 MSc and 1 PDF. Today, we have 5 Undergraduates, 6 MSc students, 1 PhD and 2 PDFs. While I am feeling the growing pains of that increase, it also means that we can research so many more things simultaneously! Indeed, our projects have proliferated to the point where there isn't a body in the solar system over 900 km in diameter which isn't the subject of someone's project.

That also means that the students are beginning to produce. In all, there were four papers published by my students. Casey Moore, my PhD Candidate expanded the Line-of-Sight observations from MSL to an entire martian year (published in Icarus, 2016). Jake Kloos, one of my MSc students did the same for the cloud record (published in Advances in Space Research, 2016). Meanwhile, my new PDF, Christina Smith and long-standing Undergraduate researcher, Brittney Cooper teamed up to discover a fog bank close to Titan's surface which was hiding in 10-year old Huygens imaging data (published in Icarus, 2016). Last, but certainly not least, a former undergraduate project student of mine, Eric Shear, worked up his mission design for a Martian Balloon into a full fledged paper which was published in the International Journal of Space Science and Engineering just before the clock ticked over into the new year. You've got to admit, that's a pretty compelling admissions argument and Eric is now one of my new graduate students.

A note on Opportunity (and I don't mean the rover) is worthwhile here. As a professor, I see my role in my student's careers as partially one of training, but more in the sense of providing opportunities. Whether those students are able to take advantage of those opportunities is up to them. I do want to see them all succeed and, indeed, the university makes it easy to take this position. The Tenure and Promotion system lets me count my student's successes as my own. That said, I don't feel that these students owe me a debt - their successes are their own, won primarily with their own hard work.

Aside from grant writing, this past year has been a bit quieter in the publishing realm, at least in comparison with previous years. There were two major papers to report - the first was a study of how water moves about on the lunar surface. I developed my own monte carlo code to look at this, which is something that has been done before by others and has been done well. However, my contribution was to bring my history in examining diffusion to bear. It makes sense - what system is more diffusive than an actual random walk of a particle? What you find when you take that approach is that, as you get closer to the pole, the movement of water molecules further and further north gets more and more impeded. Partially this is due to cold (which makes the molecules move slower and their jumps shorter) and partially it is due to the fact that as you approach the pole on a sphere, there is less surface area poleward of your location.

 Distribution of water condensing from an exosphere onto the southern PSRs from my JGR paper. Turns out that the hot spot for accumulation isn't the crater right on the pole (Shackleton) but is instead the one closest to the equator (Cabeus).

It turns out that no one had previously simulated the Southern cold traps of the Moon in a monte carlo code (all previous models had stopped at about 85ºS) and when you do that, you find that the lowest latitude Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs - the formal name for the cold traps) are the ones that get the lion's share of the water. That means that you can fill Cabeus without having to move the whole moon around on it's axis!

This paper, in particular, makes me glad because I feel like I stuck my neck out to get it done. I'm a big fan of large collaborative papers, and if you take a look at my record you'll see that I don't mind at all working with and coordinating large groups. But there were some in my department who thought it would help my case for Tenure to write a paper completely by my lonesome self. Fair enough. I had started thinking about the moon in large part because the Canadian Space Agency has been very active in lunar science for quite some time and it seemed like it could be a fruitful avenue of research for me. It may seem a bit weird for an atmospheric scientist, but there are interesting exospheric processes on the moon, not only of water, but also of dust, as LADEE showed.

In some ways, my other paper was exactly the opposite in almost every way. Written on the topic of how MSL perturbed the local atmosphere through the temerity of landing, I had been working on this paper since mid 2012, just days after MSL had landed. Somehow every time I took virtual pen to virtual paper in the time since, it didn't really feel right. In fact, it took major contributions by two other teams (led by Juergen Scheiber of the University of Indiana for the Geology and Alexandre Kling of NASA-AMES for the dynamical modelling) before the manuscript really jelled. The result is the most interdisciplinary paper I've ever written. There's something for everyone in there - engineering, atmospheric sedimentation, fluid mechanics, atmospheric dynamics, geology, geomorphology, photochemistry, radiative transfer! So it was a lot of fun to assemble the works and it's now in press over at Advances in Space Research, if you'd like to take a look.

A HazCam image taken 42 seconds after landing towards the skycrane crash site appears to show a plume of material. My ASR paper demonstrates conclusively that none of this material could have come anywhere close to the rover before being destroyed by UV Radiation.

The end result? Well, some of the work is good solid book-keeping. We provided the first reconciliation of optical methods and post-landing geological methods for examining how much dust gets kicked up by landing and what the particle size of that dust is. We extensively documented the motions of individual grains, some of which move very very quickly. We also took a look to see whether the crash of the skycrane might have injected terrestrial chemicals (nitrogen and hydrogen, mainly) into the martian environment and, if so, what became of those materials. What we showed was that even if the skycrane did in fact produce these materials, that they would be destroyed by UV long before they ever got to the vicinity of the rover, no matter what range of pathological atmospheric conditions you throw at them.

Well, I've already rambled on longer than I have in previous years (I guess this is what happens when you haven't spoken with someone in awhile, even if that someone is "the internet"). So let me quickly round up the rest of the goings on over the last year or so.

My time in NATS has come to an end, as I am needed in Engineering. I leave having gained valuable experience with larger classes which I hope to put to good use in lower-level courses. Speaking of which, I've got my first 2nd year course this year: Geophysics and Space Science. Should be fun! It already has more than 50 enrollments, so not quite the 212 of my NATS courses, but significantly larger than my fall PHYS courses. Speaking of which, these two courses are in a good groove with only slight adjustments this year.

Also, I've decided to return to the Radio after a long hiatus. Those who tuned into York Universe last night would have heard "Dr. John" riffing on Juno, Apollo, New Horizons and other topics with Paul Delaney (our newest "University Professor"!) and Jesse Rogerson. Look for me to appear more frequently in that space. My return is partially to support the program, partly to continue to give back to the community/spread the gospel of planetary science, but also a matter of professional development. I've noticed, recently, that I could do with improvement when it comes to live interviews. I know from experience that the only way to get better at something is repetition, so I am obliged to Paul and the rest of the YorkUniverse crew for having me back.

Lastly, I feel obliged to take a look at my stats. As a whole, the blog is up to just under 60,000 views with the monthly addition to that total stable at ~500 views a month. That number has been relatively constant since I got this professorial gig. This is where I'd quip that I must have been much more interesting as a postdoc! But I think it's purely a matter of posting. A blog that goes silent for a year does not drive much traffic. Accounting for over 40% of all lifetime views is that post on Arsenic - I doubt I'll be beating its nearly 26,000 views anytime soon.

Next year is a big one: I go up for Tenure. Fingers crossed! I'll let you know how it turns out, right here in this space in 2018.

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