Friday, September 05, 2008

Opportunity peace out, y'all

Opportunity leaves Victoria Crater. More to come.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sit in on an SOWG

Hi everyone - sorry to be so lax in posting. I'll try to do better in September (saying I'll post in August is just false hope) :) Here's a website where you can sit in on a meeting of the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) for MER, posted by Senator John Culberson. If you're expecting a lot of flash and graphics, you'll be out of luck. But if you want to know what it really looks and sounds like to plan a rover day, you can't get any closer to the source. Like all of us, Steve Squyres dials in to JPL from his office at Cornell and follows along with a web browser on his laptop.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Nepotism and sexism in peer-review

(Crossposted from WIPSB)

Nepotism and sexism in peer-review
Christine Wennerås & Agnes Wold
Nature 387, 341 - 343 (22 May 1997); doi:10.1038/387341a0

This is a seminal paper - widely-cited and definitely worth reading. It touches on several issues that we brought up at the LPSC breakfast, including whether women are “naturally” less competitive in science than men and the gender balance of review panels for proposals and prizes.

The study used data from applicants to the Swedish Medical Research Council fellowships. Before the study, the United Nations names Sweden as the leading country in the world with respect to equal opportunities for men and women. Also, biology and medicine are fields where gender balance has achieved more parity than other fields of science, and it might be thought that this would be reflected in the award pool.

In the study, applicants were approximately half male and half female. However, awardees were about 75% male and 25% female. The evaluations were based on three categories: scientific competence, quality of the proposed methodology, and relevance of the research proposal. While women did about as well as men in the second two categories, they were judged systematically deficient in the first: basic competence.

The study attempts to break down “scientific competence” from one subjective category into six objective variables based on papers published and citations. The finding that hit me in the gut: to receive the same competence score as a male colleague, a female needed to exceed his scientific productivity by three extra Science or Nature papers, or 20 extra papers in a lower-impact professional journal. Three extra Science or Nature papers?!?!?!?!?

I doubt that any one of the reviewers consciously made a decision to bust the female applicants down a notch. But this is a well-researched, well-documented case of embedded bias. Plus, this serious leak in the pipeline comes at a critical point, when scientists need to transition from being supported graduate students to self-supporting scientists.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Great Moonbuggy Race!

I volunteered today at the Great Moonbuggy Race, now in its 15th year at MSFC. It was awesome. It reminded me a lot of my favorite extracurricular, Odyssey of the Mind (Olympics of the Mind back in my day), but with a return-to-the-Moon emphasis, so I felt a particular fondness for it and was glad to help out (even though it was cold and drizzly, though thankfully nothing like the downpours the highschool teams competed through yesterday!).

The idea is for teams of highschool and college students to build a human-powered vehicle and race it over an obstacle course. The vehicles end up looking very much like the bare-bones, functional Apollo lunar roving vehicle, built here at MSFC, except with bicycle pedals. The course is over a km long on paved sidewalk and 18 obstacles are placed on it. Most obstacles are basically a sculpted pile of gravel 6 feet long and the width of the course. I thought they looked pretty innocuous when I walked the course but they proved to be very challenging to the vehicles. One of the obstacles was actually a small crater in the lunar landscape area where the LEM replica is - very cool. The last obstacle is a long sand pit that is also pretty challenging for vehicles that choose narrow bicycle wheels.

I didn't see any spectacular wipeouts, but I did see one crash and several disappointments, usually when a bike chain and the vehicle had no more drive. Two teams decided to push their vehicles all the way through when they broke - they got penalties at every obstacle but completed the course! Here are some photos from today's online Huntsville Times of teams in today's race. Oh right - and the vehicles have to fold up to fit in a 4' cubic space. That's my coworker Cheryl checking that requirement today.

Update: Today's Huntsville Times story on the race.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

short Doc day today

Spirit's power is quickly declining as the Martian winter sets in in earnest. Today, I did a Doc shift for Spirit that wrapped up in less than 3 hours! It included some atmospheric monitoring and Pancan 13F imaging as Spirit recharges her batteries in preparation for a great weekend plan.
As the southern hemisphere of Mars cools down and the northern heats up, there's interesting atmospheric effects afoot at the equator. One super-cool thing Opportunity sees these days is clouds. Yep, good ol' water vapor clouds going by. Wonder what shapes Opportunity thinks she sees?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

To sleep or not to sleep?

Today I got a call from my mom, who pleaded with me to tell her we weren't putting the little rover to sleep like a sick animal. It never fails to amaze me how much these rovers capture the public imagination. In reading the news today after she called, the media stories may have been a little out of proportion - we never had a plan to shut one rover down entirely. Anyway, looks like that letter with the funding cuts has been rescinded for now.

Yes, MER was scheduled to take a $4M cut this year and an $8M cut next year, which is about 40% of our current operating budget. When it comes to the rovers, nobody wants them to get more sleep, or go to sleep forever! Least of all the awesome team who operates them every day. But we work within a zero-sum budget, and every year that we ask for more money to keep operating these little dudes means a year when that money can't be spent on new missions. The other currently operating Mars missions, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey also had orders to absorb budget cuts.

Right now, the rover team operates on $20M per year. When we had $40M/yr, we had both rovers planning every weekday, and had abilities like keeping the engineers overtime or on weekends when the planning needed them, or extra staff for troubleshooting, and had all the science team members on board. When we cut back to $20M it was painful, but we accommodated the cut partly by cutting back on operations - like only planning 8 cycles a week and no weekends or overtime, and partly by having some of the science team take cuts to their budgets. Cutting a further 40% means cutting into muscle.

We got the call on Monday and I thought that our PI and project manager had a well-reasoned plan for dealing with this - it wasn't panic and it wasn't chaos. Spirit is hunkered down for the winter, but still requires a full science and engineering staff to send up imaging and monitoring commands. There's lots we can do sitting in one spot, but it wouldn't be tragic to put Spirit into hibernation. We have some good lessons learned from hunkering down in last year's dust storms and would be confident that Spirit would be kept safe until spring. We'd miss out on some interesting science but could deal. Scientists would also take cuts and that's harder on a personal level - too little money means that we have to go work on other projects and it's not easy to come back if & when things ramp back up.

Fortunately, the cuts that put us into that situation appear to be reversed for now. The rovers will surely die someday of natural causes. But for now they continue to do interesting science, and we can do our best to keep getting the most out of them and our team. We ask for the best but plan for what we are given. I think it is fair to say that the whole MER team wants MSL to succeed - indeed, many of the MER team is on the MSL team as well. So it's not really fair to cast it as an us-vs-them situation either.

What's the difference between cancelling a mission and putting a rover to sleep? Wrap your brain around NASA-ese and the MER kerfluffle over on IFOV.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Women drivers on Mars!

On Feb. 22, we held an all-female uplink team for the Spirit rover! Yay! The rover science and engineering teams have a substantial number of women on them, and uplink teams have been nearly all female just by chance a good number of times, but when our only current female Mission Manager, Cindy, decided to move on to MSL, Ashley (that's her in the photo, wearing a 9-blue-diamond necklace at the Smithsonian) coordinated a true all-women uplink day. And I got to be the Science team chair! What a fantastic experience. It was so interesting to me that having all women didn't really make a difference at all to planning the day. We're all just good at our jobs and get things done! However, both rovers planned nearly identical sols and Spirit was done well before Opportunity ;) And i love being part of a team that can make history for something that we on the rover team now take for granted - that everyone brings knowledge, enthusiasm, and experience to operating these rovers - regardless of gender.

Several places wrote good stories about this cool day:
Science@NASA, which is done at MSFC so is pretty me-centric
Emily at the Planetary Society blog wrote a terrific piece with a personal and enthusiastic slant
The Planetary Society Mars Rover Update also captured the event (scroll down!)

LPSC 2008

Just returned from the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It's a whirlwind week of research, conversations, networking, old friends, new friends, parties, talking, posters, strategizing, advising, chatting...and then a day to recover my voice, do my laundry, catch up on email, and sort my thoughts.

My favorite thing this LPSC was seeing the Kaguya high-definition TV camera images on a true HDTV set. They look unreal. Really. Like someone cgi-ed a lunar landscape with a beautiful blue marble rising behind it. The videos on the web (Earthrise and Flyover) do not do this instrument justice. Another favorite thing was seeing packed lunar sessions in the big conference room. Planetary scientists study processes and there are some fun processes to study on the Moon - and when people sense that there will be some money to study those processes, they can really pack a room! :) Personally I was glad to see a roomful of potential new collaborators!

My next-favorite thing about this year was the women's breakfast. I have a deep interest in women-in-science issues and though I don't make a big deal of it on this blog, I hope to be starting cross-posting between here and the new Women in Planetary Science blog.

My always- favorite thing is also my nightmare. Literally - I have a common stress nightmare where I am trying to go to an LPSC session but I get stuck in the static field that is the LSPC foyer, full of people, can't move my legs, can't make it to the other side as people keep trapping me to talk to them... OK so it's not really a nightmare in real life, but there is a grain of truth to it. I haven't been at an institution for a long time where I have a ready-made network of diverse collaborators to sit down with an bounce ideas off of. LPSC fills that role for me and I try to take advantage of it. So many amazing people in this field to work with and only a week to talk to them all! Well, I made some good headway.

I did make it to most of the lunar sessions, amazingly, and to Mike Griffin and Alan Stern's presentations on the state of the Agency. Fortunately there was a good roster of bloggers capturing the rest of the conference:

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New site for your reading pleasure

The folks at Adventures in Earth and Space are excellent at their jobs in informal education and run this great blog. Always something fun going on there, including updates on the LRO spacecraft.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lunar eclipse and impact monitoring

One of the cooler things going on on the Marshall campus (well, ok, except for making ginormous rockets...) is the Lunar Impact Monitoring project. It is part of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO) here at MSFC to characterize meteoroid environments for spacecraft engineering and operations. The Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory (ALaMO) watches dark areas of the moon and looks for bright flashes caused by meteor impacts. ALaMO consists of two telescopes here at MSFC and one in Georgia, all simultaneously monitoring the same area on the Moon. Having the two here allows you to check whether a flash appears in both telescopes to make sure it's not just a random bright pixel on the CCD, like a cosmic ray hit. Having the one in Georgia means you can use parallax to make sure the flash is very far away - glints off of satellites or orbital debris are too close to show up in both states at the same time.

Knowing the meteoroid flux on the Moon and modeling how much debris the impacts kick up is important when you want to build a lunar base, spacesuit, or emergency shelter. If the major danger is from high-velocity primary meteoroid impacts, then you want to have an outer layer of material that takes the brunt of the hit and breaks up the primary so that the inner layer can absorb smaller broken up pieces. But, if there is more danger from the ejecta of these small impacts, the design would be very different and the difference translates to mass and cost uncertainties in design. The present lunar impact flux is also scientifically interesting, as it represents the very small end of the Near Earth Object (NEO) population. The ALaMO sees impacts from roughy fist-sized pieces of debris, most of it already in orbits that intersect the Earth-Moon orbit (NEOs). Extrapolating up to larger sizes is another data point in understanding what debris is nearby our home.

During the lunar eclipse a couple weeks ago, we went out with some local TV crews to talk about the eclipse and general Moon stuff. We intended to use the ALaMO as a backdrop because it looks cool - but the MEO people were there and observing during the eclipse too. Thougheclipses happens during a full, bright moon, which is normally exactly NOT when ALaMO can observe, the few hours of darkness during eclipses enable observation of debris coming from the sunward direction - usually unobservable the rest of the year. How cool is that?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar satellites!

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I'd tell you more about all the other satellites on their way to the Moon. Well, we turned that effort into a nice little story for Science@NASA that you can check out, complete with links.

Alternatively, here's a quick guide to the instrumentation that's going to fly:

Monday, February 04, 2008

Finally, a real lunar program

i didn't realize how long it had been since my last post, sorry everyone! I had a great Christmas/New Years/Solstice holidays here in Huntsville and then we took a couple weeks off in January for an actual (well-deserved) vacation.

OK, so today there is big big news in the lunar arena. The President's 2009 budget request for NASA came out and there were many briefings to attend about it (may I just opine, Shana Dale is a really good presenter). The news isn't bad, but certainly NASA didn't get anything more. It's basically keeping up with inflation.

One interesting thing is that Associate Administrator for Science, Alan Stern, is making good on his desire to see a series of lunar science missions. Though it may seem patterned after NASA's wildly successful Mars Exploration Program, the lunar program is considerable smaller, both in resources and capabilities. But with LRO and LCROSS next year, the Discovery mission GRAIL in 2011, a new Ames/Goddard smallsat (LADEE - Lunar Atmospheres and Dust and something with two e's) piggybacked onto the GRAIL launch, and 2 new lunar microlanders to be launched by 2014, we arguably have a lunar exploration program going. And of course, every program needs a management office. It so happens that the Lunar program office will be based here at MSFC!

We're still working to digest what it all means, but I am excited to be here right now!

Oh, er, and the rovers are still going too :)