Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Banner Conference

While twitter is going somewhat crazy over Jake's videos, especially the gravity wave one, this one is my favourite, not only for the patterns in the clouds, but also for the shadow cast on the foothills of Mt Sharp. While this development was the most unexpected success of the group at this year's LPSC, it was far from the only event that made this a conference to remember.

I've just returned from 2017's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held this year, as every year, in the Woodlands, Texas. No matter which way you cut it, this year's conference was a tremendous success for PVL. That's not hyperbole, despite the fact that LPSC holds a special place in my own Planetary Science Education (the 2004 edition was where I realized that I wanted to be a planetary scientist) and it's an excuse to spend a week in 25C+ weather in the middle of March and meet up with old friends from graduate school.

There were a few things we knew coming in would make this year a banner year and a few surprises that heightened the experience.

Firstly and most importantly, this was the first year that I had the opportunity to take most of my group to a large international planetary conference. I've taken one or two students to conferences before, but this year our group was nine strong! Of those nine, it was the first conference of any kind for four and the first international conference for six. That's a lot of potential light-bulb moments and, at in at least a few cases, the conference seems to have been an inspiration. We also managed to avoid too many travel-related snafus under the watchful eye and guidance of our talented Chef de Mission, Postdoc Christina Smith.

Secondly, I was presenting my Pluto work to many of my colleagues for the first time. It's rare that my atmospheric science gets a talk at LPSC - this was only my 3rd such presentation in 14 years of attending the conference. But, despite a packed hall and my heart hammering in my chest (at 128 bpm, according to my fitness tracker), the talk went off well. There wasn't even any rotten fruit thrown my way in the question period and only a few people on twitter confused me for the much more famous and distinguished outer planet scientist next to me in the programme (NASA-ARC's J.M. Moore). I'll be talking a few more times about this work (at next month's U of T Planet Day and at CMOS) before I move on to my Martian Summer but this presentation was the highlight of getting the word out about our study.

Thirdly, the Canadian Government's budget was released during the conference. This might seem a strange note to make, however, my national space agency (the CSA) was specifically mentioned (right on page 90, for those interested) and not only that, but a specific planetary project received support from the highest level of government. It seems that Canada will be participating on the Next Mars Orbiter mission (NeMO) in the early 2020s with nearly $81 Million split between that project and a Quantum Encryption Satellite. I can't remember when planetary science received this kind of support and speaking as a member of the Canadian Planetary Community, it was extremely welcome.

Last of all, and certainly not least, was the unexpected success of my PhD student Jake Kloos' talk about martian clouds as seen from the Curiosity Rover. We've been presenting the movies we make and the scientific results from those movies for nine years now (for those curious where it all started, here are the ones from the Phoenix Mission, both looking up and out at the horizon). But this time something was different - there was a reporter from Science Magazine's news section in attendance and he was impressed by the videos that Jake was showing. Over the course of the week we went from a simple talk, to posted videos to a whole article in Science's online site and nearly 10,000 likes and mentions on social media, including by well-known scientists like Brian Cox and David Grinspoon. It looks like we will still be doing media on this over the next week, so this wave hasn't yet crested!

All in all, the only question I have left is: what will next year's conference bring?

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