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 Anyway, looks like that letter with the funding cuts has been rescinded for now.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.