Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Come and Learn the Art of Exploration

The author takes a selfie with the Curiosity Rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one building over from Curiosity's Mission Control where he worked during the summer of 2012. We hope to give those who attend our event on May 27, 2017 a taste of what running a space mission like Curiosity is really like.

Last year I was fortunate to be successful in my bid to secure an Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation Early Career Researcher Award. In addition to allowing me to expand the Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)-related work that we do in my group, this particular award has a youth outreach component that we're about to roll out for the first time. I think we've put together a really interesting day if you want to get an idea of what it's like to do real planetary exploration. I know that my team and I are really looking forward to sharing our enthusiasm with those students who join us on Saturday, May 27!

Some of you may have navigated to this post in order to get more information on the event, so this will serve as exposition. Over the course of six hours, from 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM, we hope to give you all a little taste of what science-driven mission design is like. The "science-driven" component is important because, where space exploration was at one point focused purely on pushing boundaries (what we call "footprints and flags"), the modern version has an animating purpose in mind, and that purpose is the science that is returned. Think of it as the difference between John Cabot's "Matthew" and Charles Darwin's "Beagle." We will start with how you select a landing site before describing how you go about equipping a robot for the journey and then how that robot is operated on another planet to actually accomplish science goals. In each case, it will be you and your fellow students who make the choices.

Of course we can't really send a robot to another world in a single day! So, instead, the planet that we will be exploring is the Earth. Furthermore, our "robot" will be a human being who will carry out Mission Control's instructions with machine-like precision. That makes this exercise a version of what we would call an "Analogue" space mission in which we practice using real "flight-like" conditions to figure out the best procedures to use when we do the real thing. Analogues also have the advantage that you can go and visit the site later on and see what your robot actually accomplished and what you might have missed from Mission Control. NASA and the CSA use these types of scenarios all the time and it is a natural part of the process for developing new instruments and techniques to use in space and figuring out how they should be used. In fact, I've been lucky enough to participate in several of these analogue missions myself and to design a few, back when I worked for Western University.

The key with these missions is to treat it like the real thing. That means no assumptions, no shortcuts, no violating the rules of the game. And it can be a very fun game! We will impose real constraints on the instruments that the robot can take, on the amount of data the robot can send back and on how the mission control communicates with the robot. Mission control roles will be staffed by you - the student participants! You'll have to work together in order to achieve your objectives, playing the mission control game with skill.

In between rounds there will be short presentations from six current and past members of mission control and science operation teams who have worked on NASA and ESA missions. This is a great field to get involved with, and you can really make a contribution at a young age. Our experts range in age from 23 to 36 years old, so they're not that different from you. Meeting and talking with these experts over lunch and in the breaks will be a highlight of the experience. We will also provide lunch and snacks, free of charge, and will have a tour of the York University Observatory. Since we will be walking over to our landing site at the end of the day, make sure to have appropriate footwear and come dressed to spend a half hour outside on our campus grounds.

A few administrative notes to add here: firstly, we are restricting the attendance to no more than 30 students (that's all the room will hold) from grades 11 and 12. Secondly, you must register to participate. That means that I need to get an email from you (to and your parents or guardians need to complete a York University Waiver which I will send you. Without a waiver, you cannot participate! This event is also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Once all 30 slots are filled, registration will close.

If all the places are filled, you've come across this post after May 27, 2017 or you are currently in a grade below 11, fear not! We hope to repeat this exercise several times over the next few years. If you are interested in participating, by all means send me an email to learn more. And if you have more questions than are answered in this post, I'll be happy to do my best to address them.

If you want to learn even more about exploring space using robots, and are interested in an unvarnished tale, I highly recommend Andrew Kessler's "Martian Summer" which tells the tale of the Phoenix Mission and those of us who ran it back in the summer of 2008. The contrast between how a mission really runs and what gets shown in the movies might surprise you!

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