Archive for the ‘research’ category

Be a Martian!

November 17, 2009

Fact #1: As a Mars scientist, I am incredibly spoiled. There are so many missions to Mars right now sending back so much data, that even if they all went silent tomorrow, it would be decades before we managed to look at all the data and figure out what it’s telling us.

Fact #2: There are lots of people out there (I’m looking at you, loyal readers!) who would love to be able to actively participate in exploring Mars. I mean, have you seen the stuff that the folks at UnmannedSpaceflight have managed to put together? They do more with the data from Mars than a lot of scientists!

So, given those two facts, you can see why I think the new “Be a Martian” collaboration between NASA and Microsoft is a great idea. Check out this excerpt from the press release:

Drawing on observations from NASA’s Mars missions, the “Be a Martian” Web site will enable the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Martian maps, take part in research tasks, and assist Mars science teams studying data about the Red Planet.

“We’re at a point in history where everyone can be an explorer,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own.”

How cool is that? It’s a really brilliant idea, and I hope it goes well. A similar project was pioneered by galactic astronomers who had way too many pictures of galaxies to deal with, so they opened up the database to the public in the form of GalaxyZoo. It was a tremendous success, with thousands of people helping to classify millions of galaxies.

I just created my account and played around a bit, and it looks like a very user-friendly introduction to Mars science. You can contribute in two main ways: aligning images to contribute to a global map, and also counting craters. Both of these tasks can sort of be done by computers, but humans will always be better.

There’s more to the Be a Martian site than just work though, there are also lots of goodies like videos and Mars wallpapers, and great information about Mars. There is even a “movie theater” where you can watch the first few episodes of a series of videos called “The Martians”, that focus on people from all over the country who are involved with Mars, ranging from members of the rover teams to enthusiastic amateurs to actors putting on a play about Mars! There are more episodes on the way, and I encourage you to keep watching… you might see someone you recognize. ;)

Bottom line, it looks like a great site, and a great way to get involved in Mars exploration and learn about everyone’s favorite Red Planet and the people who are fascinated by it. What are you waiting for? Head on over and sign up! I’ll see you on Mars!


The MOC “Book”: Introduction

January 30, 2009

When the Mars Global Surveyor arrived at Mars in 1997, it brought with it the most powerful camera ever placed in orbit around another planet, the Mars Orbital Camera (MOC). In 2001, the principal investigators of MOC, Mike Malin and Ken Edgett, published a massive 134 page paper, summarizing the results of the mission and revolutionizing the world’s view of Mars.

Here in the MarsLab, the paper is fondly referred to as the “MOC Book” and “The Beast”. Recently, Briony, Melissa and I have decided that we are going to meet on a weekly basis and discuss bite-sized portions of this monstrous paper, and I thought our readers here might be interested in following along.

We skipped the first 24 pages devoted to the details of the camera and data processing and got straight down to business with the introduction to the science section. This section begins with one of the first pictures of Mars taken by MOC. It is a rather boring looking view of some craters, but the emphasis of the paper is that every single one of the tens of thousands of MOC images tells a story.

An eroded, dune filled crater hints at a period during which the while area may have been covered in dunes which have since blown away.

A: One of the first images of Mars taken by MOC; B: The same image, map-projected; C: A fresh-looking impact crater; D: An eroded, dune filled crater hints at a period during which the whole area may have been covered in dunes which have since blown away.

The authors point out that some craters cast shadows while others don’t. This indicates that the older craters are eroded so that their rims don’t stick up as much. They also point out that some craters are filled with dunes, while others of the same size are not. This means that after some of the craters formed on the pre-existing surface, there was a period of time when sand dunes were blown through the area. The sand has now been mostly blown away, except where it was trapped inside craters. Now, enough time has passed since the sand moved through that fresh craters have formed. All that from a boring looking photo of the surface! Just wait until we get to the “interesting” images!

The introduction to the paper also spells out some of the conventions, and summarizes the goals of the experiment. They emphasize here and throughout the paper the degree to which the feel “humbled” by the MOC images.

“Our sense of being humbled by what is visible in MOC images also comes from having seen, very early in the mission … that many of our Viking- and Mariner 9-based preconceptions of Mars were simply wrong or lacked important detail.”

Stay tuned for the next few weeks as we work our way through this classic paper and discover where the pre-MOC ideas were wrong, and how MOC changed the way people think about Mars.

M.C. Malin, K.S. Edgett (2001). Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera: Interplanetary cruise through primary mission Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets, 106(E10), 23429-23570

Obama Answers Top 14 Science Questions

August 31, 2008 has come up with a list of 14 science policy questions for the candidates to answer, and Obama just provided his answers. Here are my notes, highlighting key points in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing:

    • More NSF fellowships
    • Double basic research budgets in next 10 years
    • reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050
    • expand federally funded energy research
    • increase efficiency in…pretty much everything
    • increase coordination of federal STEM programs and facilitate cooperation among states
    • more scholarships to encourage math and science grads to pursue teaching
    • increase DoD basic research
    • improve manufacturing base for defense technology
    • new vaccines and technology to identify and respond to bioterror
    • supports genetic non-discrimination
    • continued genetic modification of crops, but with better health and environmental tests
    • expand stem cell research, use embryos that will otherwise be destroyed
    • disagrees that alternate sources of stem cells make embryonic ones unnecessary
    • improve ocean stewardship
    • improve water efficiency
    • reach out to international partners and private sector to “amplify NASA’s reach”
    • re-establish National Aeronautics and Space Council
    • establish a Chief Technology Officer
    • strengthen the Presidents Council of Advisers on Science and Technology
    • guarantee government publication of scientific results will be undistorted by political appointees
    • more protection for “whistle blowers”
    • more affordable health care and require insurance companies to cover prevention, pre-existing conditions, and limit excessive charges
    • More effective participation of CDC, NIH and FDA in health research and health care

    It sounds like McCain has promised answers also, so I’ll let you know when those appear too and will provide a similar list of notes. Whatever your political views, it’s hard to deny that science is only getting more important, and these questions serve as a great way to see how the candidates feel about the top science-related issues. I really encourage you to read the full answers rather than just my quick notes.

    Update: Check out Cocktail Party physics for some more detailed and thoughtful comments on Obama, McCain and science policies.