Monday, January 30, 2006

Downright Frothy!

I wrote my first press relase for the rocks I fought for last week and now you can see it on the JPL web page. Here's the text:

Gusev Rocks Solidified from Lava

In recent weeks, as NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has driven through the basin south of "Husband Hill," it has been traversing mainly sand and dune deposits. This week, though, Spirit has been maneuvering along the edge of an arc-shaped feature called "Lorre Ridge" and has encountered some spectacular examples of basaltic rocks with striking textures. This panoramic camera (Pancam) image shows a group of boulders informally named "FuYi." These basaltic rocks were formed by volcanic processes and may be a primary constituent of Lorre Ridge and other interesting landforms in the basin.

Spirit first encountered basalts at its landing site two years ago, on a vast plain covered with solidified lava that appeared to have flowed across Gusev Crater. Later, basaltic rocks became rare as Spirit climbed Husband Hill. The basaltic rocks that Spirit is now seeing are interesting because they exhibit many small holes or vesicles, similar to some kinds of volcanic rocks on Earth. Vesicular rocks form when gas bubbles are trapped in lava flows and the rock solidifies around the bubbles. When the gas escapes, it leaves holes in the rock. The quantity of gas bubbles in rocks on Husband Hill varies considerably; some rocks have none and some, such as several here at FuYi, are downright frothy.

The change in textures and the location of the basalts may be signs that Spirit is driving along the edge of a lava flow. This lava may be the same as the basalt blanketing the plains of Spirit's landing site, or it may be different. The large size and frothy nature of the boulders around Lorre Ridge might indicate that eruptions once took place at the edge of the lava flow, where the lava interacted with the rocks of the basin floor. Scientists hope to learn more as Spirit continues to investigate these rocks.

As Earth approaches the Chinese New Year (The Year of the Dog), the Athena science team decided to use nicknames representing Chinese culture and geography to identify rocks and features investigated by Spirit during the Chinese New Year celebration period. In ancient Chinese myth, FuYi was the first great emperor and lived in the east. He explained the theory of "Yin" and "Yang" to his people, invented the net to catch fish, was the first to use fire to cook food, and invented a musical instrument known as the "Se" to accompany his peoples' songs and dances. Other rocks and features are being informally named for Chinese gods, warriors, inventors, and scientists, as well as rivers, lakes, and mountains.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Speculative Volcanology

I've been mostly interested in what Spirit is doing in Gusev crater, because I am a hard-rock kinda girl, and that's where the good rocks are. But this week, I documented for Opportunity, and had a great time! Opportunity is sitting at a location called the Olympia outcrop, that features some really exceptional ripples and crossbedding, and the team is taking its time getting the coverage this outcrop deserves. While I was on, we planned several mosiacs using the Microscopic Imager (MI). The field of view of this little camera is about 4 pennies if you arranged then 2 by 2. So to get a lot of coverage, we take a bunch of images and mosic them together. In addition, because the instrument is so close and the surface is not exactly a plane, we take a stack of images moving a few millimeters closer to the surface each time, and then examine them to find the one that is in the best focus. It's not really difficult to get these MI mosiacs, but there are a lot of detailed commands and it is challenging to make sure they're all correct and in the right order. But of course, the engineering team is terrific at doing this by now!

On the Spirit side, I've been dabbling in speculative volcanology, a new discipline I could really get into. Basically, we're seeing lots of volcanic rocks and the orbital maps seem to show lava flows as well. But, we haven't gotten any decisive data yet, and I'm not a volcanologist. It has been fun (for me, anyway) to learn about various modes of volcanism from my officemate and from other members of the team who are willing to listen to my latest crazy idea!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Pattern recognition

I'm doing Documentarian for both Spirit and Opportunity this week. It's been described as "watching paint dry," but I actually find it interesting to know in exquisite detail what the plan is today. But there are long stretches where I have to be half-listening to a roomful of people and wait until there's something important being talked about, so I can't go off and work on something that really absorbs my brain. Instead, I have to rely on my brain's pattern-recognition to alert me. When you’re next in that situation, and want to keep your pattern-recognition skills up to par, try the online version of my favorite game, SET.

Science Team Meeting

I spent last week at JPL in Pasadena for some training and my first Athena team meeting. It was a long but fulfilling week for me!

The first two days, I shadowed the Keeper of the Plan, a job I hope to start in a month or two. This job is to keep track of all the science activities people request for the day. Like Doc, which I’m doing right now (right now!), it’s a good way to keep my interest in the day-to-day activities of the rovers. It’s like the difference between taking a class for credit or audit – when I audit a class, it’s more difficult for me to find the time to devote to it than if there’s something riding on it. During the first part of the week, I spent the mornings in the science meetings and the afternoons with the planners and learned more about the process. Steve Squyres himself was there as chair, so it was wonderful to sit through the process with him and pick up bits of knowledge.

While we were all at JPL, we had some very crowded planning meetings and happened across a white sand patch that turned out to be packed with sulfur. My roommate Aileen and I were up very early in the mornings to get in and help with picking targets! I know things are busy when they cut into my precious sleep time.

The last three days were spent with the entire Athena team, gathered in the auditorium to talk science. I was very intimidated at first, had to introduce myself to everyone and felt like I should justify my addition to the team. But everyone was super, very welcoming and interested. I gave a talk on my interests that went ok - I wanted it to be fabulous, but it was just ok. I couldn’t think of anything funny to put in it so just gave it straight. One thing I resolved on the second day was to speak up when I had a question or comment instead of asking my neighbor quietly. Surprisingly to me, I did that 5 times! Ultimately, the talks and the time to meet with people were great for me to see what we are still struggling with, what new ideas can be generated, and what I have the tools to jump into.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Gathering courage

I had a great week as a science theme group lead for Spirit. This week we had little to do as we drove the rover hard, even dipping into the battery power, to push it along the road toward its winter haven. In cases like this, it’s up to the scientists to make sure we don’t zip along without at least looking around once in a while. Because we’re now traversing the basin floor, a lot of us want to know what the basin floor is made of. We passed a bedrock outcrop midweek but couldn’t stop. So I screwed up enough courage to make the case in our Friday meeting to look for a bedrock outcrop as we move toward our destination. I know a lot of people are thinking the same thing, so it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark, but I still felt like I was sticking my neck out. Fortunately I didn’t seem to embarrass myself and I think people took me seriously, though there probably isn't enough time to alter our path in the way I suggested.

Rock Star

I was asked for my autograph recently, by a collector who has an old USGS Viking map and is getting it signed by prominent Mars scientists. When asked, I had to demur – I’m certainly not in the league of Bruce Murray, Steve Squyres, and Ray Bradbury! But this great guy thought that maybe someday, I would be :) I got to choose my favorite spot on Mars, and I chose Argyre Basin. Argyre is one of the best-preserved large impact basins on Mars. It’s more than 1000 km across, stratigraphically old, and has a beautiful mountain ring around it that is presumably the remnants of its ejecta. Most of the work I’ve done in my career is related to trying to reveal the history of bombardment in our solar system in its early years, and when my attention turns to Mars, that’s what I wonder about. We don’t have any plans at present to visit Argyre, but it’ll be a fantastic location someday to learn about Martian cratering history, large basin formation, and other things like the past Martian geotherm and possibly the climate record in the infilling sediments.

(With apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot and to you, dear reader)

I like Big Basins and I cannot lie
You scientists can’t deny
That when a crater formed 4 billion years ago
And that’s where the spacecraft goes
You’ll get sprung! Wanna land your stuff
Cause you’ll notice that basin’s stuffed
With climate records in the sediments
And ejecta in the pediments
Ooh ring of mountains
Of knowledge it’s a fountain
Push that record later, later
Cause this ain’t no average crater

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Science Themes

I didn't get to upload a couple of entries last week - they're now posted below by date.

This week I have my first shift as a science theme group lead. The operations of this mission were carefully structured by Steve and his management along science lines where the team thinks of the rovers as integrated instrument packages. That may sound mundane, but in the world of missions, frequently instrument teams find themselves pitted against each other for time and power resources. The science-based approach has worked well on this mission and encourages us all to work together toward our common goals of exploration and discovery.

The science groups are centered around geology, mineralogy & geochemistry, atmospheres, and physical properties. Scientists from each group are responsible for ensuring that activities get planned that support these areas of Martian science. My interests are mainly in geochemistry and mineralogy, so I am in that science group, and this week I am the lead advocate for the group. In practice, this isn't a lot more time than I'd normally put into looking through the data and taking an interest in what's coming up, but there are a couple of systematic observations I'm responsible for suggesting, and of course, I'm a little nervous about not making a fool of myself :)

1/1/05: Leap Second

This year’s leap second may not help me and my habitual 10-minutes-late-for-everything, but it did get radiated to all the spacecraft. Just in case you were worried.

12/31/05: Enforced Vacation Break

Happy New Year! I’m here at a Santa Fe Starbuck’s with my laptop and a Tmobile hotspot, checking out what the rovers accomplished over the long weekend. Did I mention that I’m completely addicted? :)

Most of the MER scientists and engineers got a well-deserved break over the holidays. But the rovers wouldn’t know what to do with a day off. They get so much new energy every morning, like my cat! So a few people were busy right before both holiday weekends putting together multiple 3-day plans to keep the rovers busy while we went home to families and celebrations. The University where I work is closed all week between the holidays, and it’s a pleasant break to not have to drive the hour+ to get there, so I was happy to bring my speakerphone and laptop home for the week and keep up remotely.

I get to the Starbucks closest to our house (it’s about a 15-minute drive into town) for an hour in the morning while Rob’s still asleep and just download what’s available – images, documents, everything. Then I bring it home and sort through it, make mosaics and false-color views, read what actually got accomplished in the last plan, see if I can spot interesting targets where we are, make sure I understand where we’re going and what people think we should do. Then, I call the telecon line from home and participate in the science planning process for the day. It’s total about 3.5 hours for the day if I want to really get into it. There are summaries and other ways to stay abreast of developments on a weekly basis, like this great web site at JPL that I use to check on Opportunity while I am focused on Spirit.

But for the rest of the week, I did take vacation. Rob also had the entire week off and my brother came into town for Christmas and the first part of the week. He’s super fun and we had a fabulous 5 days. Rob and I had big plans to be tourists in our own state for the rest of the week, but those all got canceled when we both got sick and spent the next 5 days cooped up at home sleeping, reading (me), and playing computer games (Rob). Objectively, that’s probably the vacation we needed.

12/28/05: The Lost City of El Dorado

Since I've been involved in this project, we’ve been steering Spirit down the southern flank of Husband Hill and into a basin. Up against the leeward side of many of the hills in this area are vast (from the rovers’ perspective) black dunefields. They’re black because they’re not covered with the ubiquitous red Martian dust, which means they must be relatively young or frequently moving. They’re also probably black because they’re basaltic.

We had a team meeting to decide whether we wanted to spend a couple of weeks heading for one of these dunefields near us, called El Dorado. There are several members of the team interested in aeolian processes (how sand moves) and physical properties of the martian surface (which might be very different in fresh dunes vs old soil), who are eager to go. But what convinced me to get on board was the fact that El Dorado is visible from several orbiting spacecraft. It’s an exceptional opportunity to collect real Martian ground-truth to help interpret orbital data, a topic about which I’ve been known to kvetch.

So down through the rocky, desolate Indian country Spirit went, trading among the Apaches and Comanches, heading southwest on the path to El Dorado. The rover planners outdid themselves again, with some lengthy beauties of drives topped off with a scuff right on a dune face. And here we'll spend a long holiday weekend with the arm out, using all our instruments in chorus on the black sands of El Dorado.