Archive for the ‘grad life’ category

Carnival of Space #132!

December 8, 2009

Hey, check it out, it’s the carnival of space!

Things will be pretty quiet around here this week because I’m a bit preoccupied with a two-page abstract for next year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (due Thursday) and putting together a poster for the American Geophysical Union conference next week. I can only imagine the LPSC coordinators cackling with glee as they scheduled the abstract deadline the week before AGU.

I hope to blog from the AGU conference though, so stay tuned for lots of cutting-edge planetary news next week! You can also follow other geobloggers attending the meeting, just check the AGU blogroll!

NaNoWriMo 2009

October 31, 2009


Well, it’s that time of year again. Against my better judgement, I have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again this year. For those unfamiliar with NaNo, the idea is to write a >50,000 word novel in the month of November. It’s a great way to get over the inner editor and just write, and I’ve been putzing around with this year’s story idea since earlier this year. It’s time to get it out of my head and onto the page.

What does that mean for this blog? Well, updates may be less frequent. But if I recall, last year I actually updated more often, possibly because I was already in the writing mindset. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I’ll be sharing cool links and tweeting about life and science and writing.


Review of ‘Defying Gravity’

September 3, 2009


Hi folks. I’m still neck-deep in paper revisions, so if you’re looking for something to read, Joe Shoer has a good review of the new sci-fi show “Defying Gravity”. I’ve never seen it, but his review makes a good point that it’s refreshing and promising to see a popular show that is pro-space exploration.

Student Questions about Mars Exploration

July 6, 2009

A few months ago, a class of 6th graders at JFK Middle School in Hudson, MA contacted the astronomy department at Cornell. They were doing an egg-drop project, modeled after the Mars rovers, and their teacher had them each write questions to Steve Squyres about the rover mission. Steve was out of town (and is always extremely busy), but he suggested that many of the questions could be answered by grad students!

So, I selected a handful of questions, and I’m posting the answers here because there’s a good chance that other people have similar questions, and this is a good way to make the responses public.

Did you always want to be a scientist?

Yes. Even when I was in kindergarten, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said: “A [locomotive] engineer, and a scientist on weekends.” I lost interest in trains, but not in science.

What first got you into space and Mars? What interested you in becoming a grad student in Astronomy?

I always thought space was pretty cool, but in high school I took an elective course in astronomy. We had an assignment where each group was given an object in the solar system and had to design a mission to send humans there. My group was assigned Europa, and as I was reading about its icy crust and the possibility of a liquid ocean beneath the surface and trying to figure out how to send people there, I had the realization: “There are people who do stuff like this for a living!” So that got me started. And then my teacher for that class told me to take a look at books by Carl Sagan like Cosmos and Contact. Once I read those (and everything else by Sagan that I could get my hands on) I was totally hooked.

How did you get where you are today?

In undergrad I wasn’t sure at first whether I wanted to do English or astronomy. I’ve always been better with words than with math. But I decided that if I want to I can always write if I study astronomy, but I can’t do science if I study English. So I ended up double majoring in Astrophysics and Physics in undergrad. That gave me a good foundation, and also gave me the opportunity to try different summer research projects. I studied a flare on a nearby star, dust clouds in the constellation Orion, buried impact basins on Mars, and a new type of instrument for space exploration. By the end of undergrad I realized that I didn’t want to do just physics, I wanted to study planets, and particularly planetary surfaces. So I applied to graduate schools in planetary science and decided on Cornell because it has several people involved in studying the surface of Mars.
How did you get involved in Mars exploration?

Once I was at Cornell, I talked to various people doing research that interested me (mostly Mars stuff), and started working for Jim Bell, the leader of the pancam color cameras on the rovers. He is involved in lots of other Mars missions in addition to the rovers, so over the last few years I’ve gotten a good taste of orbital, rover and laboratory work related to Mars.

What is the worst part of your years of being a grad student?

Oooh, good question! Before I answer, I want to make clear that there are good things about grad school too. I mean, I get paid to look at landing sites on Mars and shoot rocks with lasers! And I can work any hours I choose (so long as I get my work done). And you get to travel to interesting places and talk to interesting people about interesting questions. Etc. So now that that disclaimer is out of the way, the bad stuff:

The worst part would probably be self-doubt. In graduate school, you are trying to contribute to scientific knowledge, but everyone else who studies the topic has been doing it for longer than you (some of them for longer than you’ve been alive!). So you have to learn everything as you go: not just the facts, but how to pose good scientific questions, how to apply for funding, how to use the data, etc. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Some people go so far as to feel like they don’t belong in a field with so many people that they think are smarter than them. This is called the “Impostor Syndrome“. But a good adviser, and getting to know others in the field is very helpful, as is talking to other grad students.

Also, academia tends to make it seem like you should always be working, and so there is some guilt whenever you do anything else:

When you started on Mars exploration did you have any big questions?

Whenever people ask what the big questions I’m interested in are, I have a hard time because my interests are pretty broad. Generally, all of the big questions about Mars interest me. I want to know what Mars used to be like, and how and why it changed to the way it is now. And, of course, whether there was ever life on Mars.

What is the most fascinating fact (s) that you have found?

I’m going to interpret the “you” in this question as aiming at all of Mars scientists, because so far I haven’t found anything especially groundbreaking.

I think it is very interesting that we are seeing evidence from orbit for minerals that formed in life-friendly waters on Mars, but that the current planet is extremely dry and cold and that most of the evidence from the Rovers suggests that the water was salty acid that wasn’t very good for life.

Were you surprised to find out there was once water on Mars?

Not particularly. There is a joke among Mars scientists that water on Mars is “discovered” about every two years. We’ve known that there was water for a long time, but it seems like everyone else forgets after a couple of years until we find new evidence and it is reported as “the discovery of water on Mars”.
How much longer do you think it will be before humans can live on Mars?

If we wanted to go, we could go in 5-10 years. We would just have to build a big enough rocket. The problem is that it would be very expensive, and it is hard to convince the president and congress to do something so expensive when it probably won’t have any tangible benefits (it won’t save lives or make money, although it would make lots of jobs for the people involved in building the rockets). I think in reality it will be more like 30-40 years before we send humans to Mars. Maybe it will be sooner, but other than Apollo, everything else in space exploration tends to take longer than expected.

How did you get in the lander business?

I worked hard in college to get good grades in astronomy and physics, and did summer research internships, and then I applied to a bunch of graduate schools. I was lucky enough to get into Cornell, where they were already running the rovers, so when I got here, I started to work with Jim Bell and he helped to get me involved with the current rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory mission that will launch in 2011, named Curiosity.

Have you worked on other planets other than Mars?

No, I haven’t. My non-Mars research was on infrared pictures of star forming regions, and on a bright flare on the nearby Barnard’s Star.

If you had unlimited resources, would your mission to Mars have been different?

With unlimited resources, I would send people! People are a lot smarter, faster, agile, and creative than our robots. In one day I could walk as far as either of the rovers has gone in five years. If I were collecting samples and making measurements, maybe it would take weeks.


Do they pick people to be involved in Mars exploration or do you just
go there and sign up?

Generally, you go to graduate school as either an engineer or a scientist, and you get involved by meeting with and working for people who are already involved.

How can you slow down the landing?

The main ways that we use to slow down the landing are heat shields, parachutes and rockets. The heat shield protects the spacecraft as it enters the atmosphere: friction with the air slows the spacecraft down and heats the shield to thousands of degrees. Next parachutes come out, causing even more air resistance to slow the lander down. Finally, rockets are used at the end to bring the spacecraft to a stop.

Now Back to our Regularly Scheduled Programming

July 4, 2009

As of yesterday at noon, I am happy to report that I passed my A-exam and now have a M.S. in Astronomy, and am a PhD candidate! That’s right, I somehow managed to convince my committee that shooting rocks with lasers and looking at landing sites on Mars is worthy of a PhD. Being grilled about the fundamentals of your science by Jim Bell (my adviser and lead scientist for the rover color cameras), Steve Squyres (lead scientist for the rover missions), Bob Kay (petrologist and geochemist), and Yervant Terzian (radio astronomer) is a grueling experience. But then at the end being complimented on your work is a great feeling.

And then relaxing and hanging out with friends, going berry-picking, eating good Indian food: even better.

My advice to future grad students facing their thesis proposal exam (every school seems to have a different name for this exam…): start planning early. The earlier you have an outline of your thesis and can start going over it and discussing it with your adviser, the smoother the process will go. Also, find out about the paperwork your school requires for the exam ahead of time so you don’t have to deal with it the day-of.

Anyway, I hope I’ll be able to post here a little more regularly now that things have settled down. Have a great 4th of July!

Carnival of Space #106

June 8, 2009

Hello folks, apologies for the lack of posts lately. I have been keeping busy trying to write up a draft of a paper on the Gale crater landing site for MSL, which is taking a very long time and becoming very large. I don’t anticipate having lots of time to post here this month. Even as I work on the draft, I will be traveling out to Los Alamos National Lab next week to begin analyzing some rock samples by vaporizing them with a laser, and then I’ll be rushing back to Ithaca to try to cobble together a coherent outline for my PhD thesis. I then get to defend that outline in front of my committee in early July. Assuming I survive that, they pat me on the back, hand me a master’s degree, and say “now go do all that stuff you listed in your outline”.

And of course, as if that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I’m involved in a month-long novel outlining project over at the writing forum Liberty Hall. My novel is going to be character-focused realistic science fiction involving space pirates (sorry, no peg legs or eye patches here), colonizing and mining the planets of 55 Cancri, and lots of moral dilemmas. In other words, I’ve got my work cut out for me…

All of which is to say that posts here will be less frequent (unless you want to hear about planning a sci-fi novel or the mundane aspects of making figures for a paper). In the meantime though, other space-bloggers are writing some great stuff, and as always you can get a good sampling at the Carnival of Space. This week it is hosted by Next Big Future. Go take a look!

Impressive Arecibo

April 19, 2009

Betsey over at the ALFALFA Survey Blog just posted about visiting Arecibo and how jaw-droppingly impressive the telescope is. Her pictures are spectacular, so you should go check them out! Here’s a teaser:

Where the Moon Rocks Live

April 14, 2009

This month, I am working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and I have to say, it’s a pretty cool place to work. Every morning I ride my bike past the pair of NASA T-38 jets that mark the entrance to Space Center Houston (the touristy part of JSC). I ride through the security checkpoint and on my left are a handful of rockets from the early days of space exploration. I pass mission control (as in: “Houston, we’ve  had a problem.”), and buildings used to train the astronauts and test new technologies, and finally I get to  building 31, where I work and where the moon rocks live. I can go from my desk to the door of the lunar vault without going outside. In fact, we did just that last week!

The lunar samples are stored in a big cleanroom, and to get in you have to put on a very stylish bunny suit. Here you can see me modeling the suit:

Me, wearing a stylish "bunny suit" in the lunar sample lab. My hands are reaching into the Apollo 14 sample chamber.

Me, wearing a stylish "bunny suit" in the lunar sample lab. My hands are reaching into the Apollo 14 sample chamber (no lunar samples were harmed in the making of this blog post).

Before entering the clean room, we were also told to take off all gold or silver jewelry. This is because all gold and silver alloys (even 24K gold) have trace amounts of lead in them. Lead isotopes in the moon rocks are used to do radioisotope dating of the lunar samples, so absolutely no lead is allowed in the laboratory to avoid contaminating the samples. In fact, the lunar samples are only allowed to touch stainless steel, teflon, glass, and the high-purity nitrogen in the sample containers.

Also, the samples from each mission are restricted to the chamber for that mission. So, you would never see a rock from the Apollo 11 landing site in the Apollo 17 chamber. Again, this is to avoid cross-contamination. You don’t want to mistakenly think that rock A was found at the Apollo 17 site if it was really only collected at the Apollo 11 site.

The lab, chambers and vault are set up with increasing pressure. The vault is at a higher pressure than the sample chambers, the chambers are at a higher pressure than the cleanroom, and the cleanroom is at a higher pressure than the outside world. This means that if there is ever a leak, the more pristine air will blow toward the “dirtier” areas rather than the other way around.

Here’s a better view of the lab and the chambers. You can tell that the chambers are at a higher pressure because the gloves stick out into the room.

The lunar sample laboratory. You can tell the sample chambers are at a higher pressure than the room because the gloves on the left stick straight out. At night, the gloves are rolled up and capped, like the white bumps you see in this picture because otherwise they can wave around and set off the motion detectors.

The lunar sample laboratory. You can tell the sample chambers are at a higher pressure than the room because the gloves on the left stick straight out. At night, the gloves are rolled up and capped, as you can see at the ends of the chamber in this picture because otherwise they can wave around and set off the motion detectors.

The lunar sample laboratory was initially used to painstakingly catalog every sample returned from the moon. This involved taking pictures and studying the geology and doing elemental analysis on each and every sample. These days the facility is mostly used to divvy up the lunar samples to send them to scientists. Each time the samples are split up, the curators take more pictures and record more detailed documentation. The curators are in the process of scanning all of the documentation and photos and making them available, but it’s a huge job so it will be a few more years. Still, there’s lots of great info about the samples available already if you follow the links on the right of the Astromaterials Curation page.

I asked whether this facility would have to be modified to accomodate the samples from the upcoming moon missions, and it sounds like it won’t be necessary for quite a while. There is room for a couple thousand kilograms of samples back in the vault right now. Eventually if that gets used up, it is likely that the Apollo samples would gradually be moved to one of the other curation facilities to make room for the new arrivals at JSC.

The two moon rocks in front of me (in the teflon bags) have seen quite a lot in their time, but they are now enjoying their retirement on display in a chamber in the clean room.

The two moon rocks in front of me (in the teflon bags) have seen quite a lot in their time, but they are now enjoying their retirement on display in a chamber in the clean room.

It’s very impressive to see everything involved in the curation of these priceless samples. It’s even cooler to look into a chamber and see a small grey lump of rock and realize that that rock has witnessed the history of the solar system. It has been shattered by impacts, irradiated by cosmic rays, and pock-marked by micrometeors. It sat on the surface of the moon and watched the continents on Earth collide and tear apart and the seas open and close. It watched mountain ranges rise and fall. And it witnessed life emerge and flourish. And then, one particularly clever (or particularly foolish) species of ape built a machine that launched a few particularly brave (or foolish) members of that species to the surface of the moon. There, one of them scooped up the rock and took it home.

They have been on Earth for forty years. Scarcely an instant to the rocks. And soon, as we return to the moon, more time-weary rocks will be joining them in a peaceful retirement in the stablest climate that any of them have ever experienced, in building 31: where the moon rocks live.

I have joined the dark side

April 9, 2009

Guess what? I finally joined twitter! I am marschronicler!
Do you want to know about the minutiae of my life? My most (and least) profound thoughts? What I had for breakfast? Well, then you are in luck, my friends!

Yuri’s Night and 100 Hours of Astronomy

April 4, 2009

Are you going to a Yuri’s Night party this year? I am! In about five minutes! In case you’ve never heard of it, Yuri’s night is a worldwide series of parties held on April 4-12 to commemorate Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight! It is the brainchild of Loretta Hidalgo-Whitesides, a fellow NASA Academy alum and all around cool person. This year there are 171 parties in 41 countries on six continents and, apparently, 2 worlds. I’m not sure what the other world is… maybe the rovers are going to celebrate? Anyway, it’s an awesome way to celebrate Gagarin’s historic flight and raise awareness of space exploration, so go find a party in your area!

You may also want to check out 100 hours of astronomy: a huge worldwide astronomy marathon that’s going on right now!

Surely between the two events you can find something spacey to do this weekend!