Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Week Amongst the Alps

Combining two facets of my work - an animation of the Siding Spring Comet as seen from MSL in October of 2014 (It's the fuzzy thing which translates across the frame, keeping with the images). Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about the cometary dust that you can see here, rather than the dust in the martian atmosphere - my usual topic of study.

I've been to conferences all over the US, Canada and Western Europe. But never before have I attended an invitation-only conference. I've now had this honour, having just returned from the International Space Science Institute's Cosmic Dust Workshop, which was held in Bern, Switzerland over the past week. I was invited Andrew Schuerger, a convenor, friend and frequent collaborator of mine. Never having done this kind of conference before, I was unsure of what to expect. But I knew that regardless of how things went, that I would learn something new. Plus, Switzerland is rather pretty this time of year and the weather was nice.

In many ways, the workshop reminded me of the last time I was in Switzerland for a conference - the 2006 Mars Polar Science Conference. That too was a relatively small group (~40ish participants) held in a single room. It's a bit daunting to do such a small conference and totally unlike my usual selection of DPS (~900), LPSC (~2000) or AGU (~26,000). That small size makes it difficult to be a passive observer, as there is nowhere to hide!

Additionally, and also like the Mars Polar Science Conference (at the time), this particular event was located a bit outside my expertise, focusing as it did upon dust located in interplanetary and interstellar space (as opposed to the atmospheric dust I work on day in and day out). In that way, I felt a bit as if I were playing catch-up with the speakers. But that's a good thing. You don't go to a conference in order to hear about things you already know. Indeed, conferences are a little bit like continuing education or a master class for professionals.

I hope my talk was also informative to this audience. The reason I was invited was based on a 2014 prediction paper I had written with Andrew (and Tim McConnochie, Doug Archer and Doug Ming) which sought to understand what the Comet Siding Spring encounter with the Martian Atmosphere might have meant. We saw that dust levels wouldn't change much optically (there is vastly more dust aloft in the martian atmosphere), but we had wondered whether there might be enough carbon-rich dust in the cometary particles to influence Mars' methane budget.

To jump right to the end, the answer was no: unfortunately, the comet calmed down considerably as it approached Mars and relatively little dust was actually delivered. But it was helpful to discuss the mechanism with a group of people who study the comet particles, as opposed to with people who study the martian atmosphere (my usual audience).

Now that the conference is over, I've got a much better understanding of cosmic dust, in all its myriad varieties (just to highlight one talk - the presentation on LADEE's lunar results in the young scientist's section of the conference was spectacular!). However, our work isn't done yet. Together the participants will be putting together a series of papers for SSR to review the state of the field at the time of the conference. If you'd like to read them all at once, ISSI will also be reprinting them as a stand-alone book. Look for these online in late 2017 and in print in 2018.

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