Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Big Push

Sorry I dropped off for a couple of weeks - I got busy with a couple of real things. I wrapped up a paper and an LPSC abstract based on the work I did for my MER team proposal. The science that I'm interested in relates to large impact events, what they do to rocks, and what information we can pull out from the rocks about the impacts that created them. So far in my career, I've been able to get some interesting impact information from terrestrial rocks, lunar rocks and from meteorites - but all by picking up the rock and taking it into the lab for analysis. Mars is a whole different story. These rovers are strictly in-situ instruments. They can't pick up rocks and turn them over. They can't break open the rocks to look inside. And they certainly can't launch the rocks back to Earth for me to be able to put them in the lab! So it's required a change of reference frame for me.

The first thing I did was to try to determine how much material at the MER landing sites might have been thrown there by large impact events - no sense trying to look for things that don't exist! Using some simple equations, I estimated that at least at the Spirit landing site, we should expect to see a couple of horizons of interesting impact ejecta. So I worked up that first attempt into a paper and an abstract that I'm sure will generate some discussion at our next meeting in March. But, this isn't a straightforward exercise. Though we understand quite a bit about lunar and terrestrial craters, Mars is more complicated in a lot of ways. Mars probably has water ice in much of its subsurface and when a meteorite slams into the rock + ice mixture, strange things happen. So now I have to take the next step and try to understand more about Martian crater forms.

Now that I have more access to data and more importantly, to knowledgeable scientists, I'm also diving into trying to identify the rocks that might be products of impacts and to be able to get information out of them. That's my 2-year plan, though, so that's a big mountain of learning ahead of me. :)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Science vs Survival

It's autumn in Gusev Crater, and the sun is moving lower in the sky. Opportunity is near the equator and doesn't see much of a change, but Spirit is feeling the chill in the air. The power we are getting from the solar panels is steadily decreasing - not enough to make a difference to our science activities now, but enough that we can see when we're going to have to start worrying about it. Last winter, the clever team got Spirit onto north-facing slopes to tilt the solar panels toward the low sun. This autumn, we are moving off Husband hill on a south-facing slope and into a basin, so there's some urgency we feel in getting into a position to be on north-facing slopes come winter.

Fortunately, because the year on Mars is twice as long as on Earth, it's not winter yet (though in Santa Fe, temperatures have been in the single digits F and there's been snow!). So, we have a couple of months yet before winter really sets in. But a couple of months to the rover is not so long when it takes a whole day to drive 30m! Just as I came on as a new science team member, one of the first telecons I attended addressed this issue. It was decided that we needed some serious discipline to get us where we needed to go, into the basin, with some margin, so that we could find safe haven for the winter months. To me, this was a huge blow - bring new, excited team members on to the rovers and then tell them you're going to have to rein in a lot of your scientific curiosity?!? But that's the reality of the situation if we want to keep these amazing little machines in good health for future discoveries.

This issue came up again this week, as we saw a spectacular outcrop and half the team wanted to go there to see what it is and half the team wanted to press on to make sure we get to safer ground. It's a really difficult discussion to have, because realistically, there are only so many science stops we can make. It comes down to trading an interesting science goal in front of us for possibly *more* interesting science activities in the future, and I think it's espeically hard to come in new and want to do something immediately. Though we bring fresh perspectives, we might also lack the experience to know when something's not worth stopping for. This time, we're stopping, and I'm glad for now. If it turns out to be a stop for something we've already seen, everyone will be disappointed and we might have to skip something later too. But that's the nature of science, some roads lead to fabulosity and others dead-end unexpectedly.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Documenting Spirit's weekend

I meant to post this on Friday - I spent a long first day on the job. Every day that we do planning for a rover, there is someone on the job taking notes. The idea is so take detailed enough notes that 100 days later, or a year, or ten years, someone can look at the notes and figure out what we were thinking and why we wanted the rover to do this particular activity.

After a week of "shadowing," I had my first real day on Friday. It actually started Thursday afternoon, with a pre-meeting to outline what we expected to do. On Friday, we were planning 3 sols of activities to take us through the weekend, so it was a long list of what people wanted to do and the pre-plan gets things in order so we only need to hash out the details later. On Friday morning, I came in at my usual 7:30 am, looked at all the data that had come down, read all the emails from people that were circulating, and made sure I had all the random pieces of software running. I tagged-up with the day's planners and managers at 8:30 to make sure we were all present and on the same page. Then I got the various reports and listened in to the morning's science telecon at 9, where all the interested scientists dial in and decide what we want to do.

I summarized the morning meeting around 10 am. I'm a terribly poor typist, so it's not easy to keep up with detailed notes, but I am keenly interested in the details, so it's not that hard to remember things from my misspelled notes. Then, I got on a different telecon line and listened in all day to our incredibly talented engineering staff, who take the list of activities the scientists want and spend all day turning it into lines of code the rover can understand and execute. My job there is to make sure the science activities do actually make it in, note when any changes are made and why, and be an extra brain to double-check on everything.

The activities go through several iterations of turning into more and more detailed engineering-speak, and there are three meetings during the day where various people get together to comb through the latest iteration and double-check it. This is where tiny improvements are made or tiny mistakes get caught. Finally, at about 6 pm, we concluded our meetings for the day and left it to the dedicated JPL staff to turn our requestes into a long code to radiate to the rovers. I finalized my report and posted it for everyone to refer to at about 6:30.

So, it was a long day, but at the end I knew, to the most minute detail, everything Spirit was going to do over the weekend. It was an exhilirating feeling. Several times over the weekend, at home, I could look up at the bright orange point of Mars and imagine, very accurately, whre Spirit was headed and what it might be seeing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Working in a cold desert environment

After our firehose of information at JPL, I spent a week traveling to New York to talk about the Moon and Lunar exploration at the gracious invitaiton of the folks at the American Museum of Natural History. I went to the American Museum and the Hayden (as it was knowm back then) planetarium frequently while growing up and I remember the huge dioramas of New York State mammals fondly. It was a great pleasure and privilege for me to be invited there professionally. I also got to spend Thanksgiving day in Albany with my family, which was really great, fun, and relaxing.

Now that I'm back home, in the cold, clear air among the desert rocks of New Mexico, I'm in a Martian state of mind. This week, I'm setting up my office to be a remote operations station for the rovers. As one might expect, JPL takes a lot of precautions to safeguard data and computers, so there is some work setting that up correctly. In addition, because the MER mission was only expected to last 90 days, there waasn't a lot of incentive to make software as streamlined or user-friendly as it might be otherwise, and system updates have come and gone. Once you get familiar with all the tools, they're surprisingly intuitive, but this week is dedicated to really digging in, listening every day to the process end-to-end, figuring out where things reside and how to generate files. It's the really unglamorous side of spacecraft operations, but it's unexpectedly satisfying to come out at the end of the day with a plan to radiate to the spacecraft that sets you up for another day of potential discovery.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mars needs women

In this last round of selections, two of the eight scientists selcted for the Athena science team were women. One is me, the other is Aileen Yingst, who is a friend of mine from a long time ago. We were in grad school at the same time and have kept in touch with each other through conferences and email. We are sharing a room this week and going through training together, and I am so grateful! It is so great for me to be able to talk with he about our common experiences, hopes, and fears. Of the "classic" science team, only two others are women, but the JPL operations team is about half women, and some days all the operations roles are filled by women! That's something truly remarkable. Check out this great article about the first female rover driver:


After a hectic few weeks clearing a lot of work off my plate, I'm at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the MEr project is run. It's a real thrill and priviledge to meet the people who make the rovers work, and who make sure the rovers continue to work. I'm still pretty stunned to be a part of it all.

I and the other new scientists new to the team have spent the past two days in the amazing, high-tech MER conference room staring wide-eyed at 7 computer projected screens as the scientists, instrument engineers, and various other personnel have turned a firehose of information upon us. We are all completely overwhelmed with what it takes to run this mission successfully. We are each expected to contribute our time and talents to the mission, but have been given free rein to decide which roles we would like to fill. Personally, I am having some difficulty in choosing. I feel like a kid in a candy store, where everything looks interesting and appealing, and I want to try it all! Fortunately for all of us newbies, the rovers are in excellent health and show no signs of imminent demise, so I might get my wish to be able to sample it all.

We are also interacting every day with the daily operations people. It is nice to be able to have a real person to conect with the voices I'm been listening to on telecons and the backs of heads I see in the videoconferencing. Tonight, we had a little social event - we ended up talking a lot of shop, but also got to hear a little about other peoples' backgrounds, and drink some beer too, as geologists are wont to do when gathered together.

The rest of the week will be concentrating on hand-on experience with the daily tools of operations planning. We also will all participate in this week's end-of-sol meeting, a weekly tag-up just for the scientists to talk about science. It's where we get to present new results, share wacky ideas, argue over interpretations - the stuff we really like to do!

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I'm reading Steve Squyres' book before going to sleep at night, and having these dreams where I'm personally responsible for crashing the rovers!


This week, I've been lurking on the kickoff telecons that take place at the beginning of each (earth) day. These telecons are where the team tags up to make a plan for the rovers for the next day. Because of the 9 minutes it takes a radio signal to get the Earth from Mars, and another 9 minutes to send a signal back, it's impractical to interact with the rovers in real time. Instead, every day we uplink a whole sequence of commands to the rover, telling it what we want it to do with its day on Mars. The rovers have some very sophisticated software onboard so you can tell it, "Go 30 meters north" and it will use its judgement to avoid rocks and go around obstacles to end up where to tell it to. You can also tell it to point its instruments at the sky or at a specific point on the ground and take pictures or get a science observation.

In addition to the daily plans, the science group also has long-term plans for each rover that get reviewed every week or so and guide the daily planning. This week, we evaluated what we want Spirit to be doing for the Martian autumn. We want to get to a specific target that is far away, and we need to get there before the winter sets in and the solar power available drops by a lot. To do this long-term plan requires a lot of driving and doesn't leave a lot of time for wandering around. It's good to be in on these discussions so that I can better judge what potential constraints on my science interests are.

Friday, October 28, 2005

First telecons

Today I listened in on the science planning telecons for both Spirit and Opportunity. There's a lot I don't understand yet, but the gist is that engineers and science team members get together every day, review the data that was successfully downloaded the previous day or overnight, get updated on the rover and instrument health, and decide what commands to uplink to the spacecraft to have it continue its long-term science goals. It's a surprisingly collegial process, where (at least today ) everyone got what they needed and what they wanted in terms of observations, driving distance, etc. There's some special software that allows everyone to see the same presentations and the command sequencing, as well as videocameras to the JPL planning room, because most of the scientists partipate from their home institutions rather than living at JPL.

Miss MER

That's how a friend recently addressed me in an email - I am a new member of the Athena Science Team and will be working with the fabulous little robotic explorers on the Martian surface to get to new places and look at new rocks and try to figure out what we can about Mars. So many people have asked me what's going on, what will I actually be doing, what does it take to drive the rovers around, what will I be learning - so I'll be keeping this blog for a while to let you know when I do! So far, I don't know a whole lot about my new role but I'll try to reflect what it's like as I learn.

First of all, the Mars Exploration Rovers are twin spacecraft built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles. The rovers each carry a package of instruments called the Athena science package. So I'm a member of the science team, chosen to conduct science investigations with the instrument package.

The MER rovers landed on Mars in 2004 and have been like the energizer bunny - still going! The principal investigator, Steve Squyres, recounts the building, launch, and first year of the mission in his book, Roving Mars : Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet, that I will be picking up this weekend.