Sunday, March 3, 2019

Answer me, these questions... five?

I can tell you that as Scientists, we get plenty of questions from all over, in fact learning how to field such questions and to get someone an answer (even if you don't already know!) is a big part of the job. This week, Christina, pictured above, takes some time away from her mission control work to answer some common questions in this space.

By Dr. Christina Smith

This time for my blog post, I thought I’d try a slightly different tack to usual. I often find that I get questions when in social situations about science-y or space-y or astronomy-y... things. So, I thought I’d open up the floor on social media to Solar System questions which I would then answer (or attempt to answer) in this blog post. And here we go!

P.S. In the discussion below, I have taken lots of information from papers and sources rather than pulling the information out of my own brain so the references are there in brackets and refer to the full links at the end in case you want to take a gander!

P.P.S. this was quite fun to do and I might do it again, so if you have any questions add them in the comments :)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dive into the Deep Space Network

This week, MSc student Brittney Cooper examines the Deep Space Network, a key asset for Planetary Science. Above, you can see a screenshot of the live DSN page, on what we now know to be the penultimate planned attempt to contact Opportunity – a tip of the hat to an amazing rover mission and its team. 

by Brittney Cooper

I know I’m quite behind the times with this but I recently stumbled upon the live Deep Space Network (DSN) page called “DSN NOW,” and I’ve been mildly obsessed with it ever since, keeping the page open as a permanent tab in my browser. Getting to see cool things happen in real time definitely is part of the appeal, but my involvement in MSL mission operations has also allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for this kind of thing… definitely more than I ever had before. 

Being a part of MSL mission planning has you navigating and working around communications passes when satellites orbit overhead the rover, meaning that mission scientists have to manage the data volumes of observations so that necessary data can be down for the next planning day, and the lower priority stuff can trickle down later on.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

AGU 100th Fall Meeting

 The pause in blog posts here is entirely my fault - I've been on sabbatical travelling in the South Pacific and have a backlog of three to post, so look for even more tales of trials, tribulations and triumphs from the members of PVL in the coming days! We kick off the new year with Dr. Paul Godin's trip to the 2018 AUGFM. Above is Paul's photo of the AGU 100 sign at that Meeting.

by Dr. Paul Godin

The fall meeting of the American geophysical union (AGU) is one of the largest scientific conferences in the world, attracting over 10,000 attendees. This year they celebrated their 100th meeting; and it was my first time attending. The fall meeting was traditionally held in San Francisco, but due to on going renovations of the San Francisco Moscone Convention Centre, the meeting has been moving around America. AGU 100 was held in Washington D.C., so while I didn’t get to enjoy the warmth of San Francisco, I did get to enjoy visiting the American Capitol (luckily the meeting was before the shutdown, so everything was open for tourists at that time).

Friday, November 30, 2018

Penitentes: where art thou?

 Hidden in amongst the ice penitentes above is PVL PhD student Giang Nguyen! Original image "Penitentes ice formations at the southern end of the Chajnantor plain in Chile in 2005." credit: ESO,

By Tue Giang Nguyen

A great deal of my research recently has been dealing with atmosphere-surface interactions. In conjunction with my survey for dunes on the Martian polar cap, I’ve also been looking for surface features called penitentes. For the uninitiated, penitentes are ice and snow blade structures common in tropical alpine regions such as the Andes and the Himalayas. Although Darwin thought that these ice blades were sculpted by the wind, later glaciological research proved otherwise.

Penitentes are formed by uneven heating and subsequently sublimation of an icy surface. Imagine a pair of mirrors held together forming a v-shape with their reflective surface pointing up. Now from above, if you shine a laser onto the v-shape mirrors, you will probably see that the light will bounce between the walls sending light towards the bottom of the v. This dynamic of light bouncing off the reflective side walls and concentrating towards the depression is how the ridges and troughs of penitentes take their shape. As the trough receives more heat and sublimate more water, it deepens while the side walls receive less heat and sublimate more slowly.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Searching for Liquid Water on Mars at the Canadian Light Source

PVL is branching out in time! Not content to limit ourselves to today's Volatile Reserves on Mars, two members of the group, PDF Paul Godin and PhD Candidate Charissa Campbell headed out to Saskatchewan to examine the ancient atmosphere. In the image above, Paul Godin (York), Tyler Wizenberg (U of T), and Charissa Campbell (York) are pictured in front of the Canadian Light Source.

 by Dr. Paul Godin

A recent paper by Wordsworth et al. ( suggested that the greenhouse effect on ancient Mars could be stronger than previously thought due to a phenomenon called collision induced absorption (CIA). CIA is when molecules in a gas collide with each other and for a brief moment form a two-molecule complex that has its own absorption features. 

Wordsworth’s paper made a computation prediction of what the CIA for the Martian atmosphere would look like, but experimental verification of their prediction is still required. CIA is a weak absorption feature and requires spectroscopy set-ups that have long path-lengths or can handle high pressures to detect it. One method to achieve a long path length is known as a multi-pass White cell; in this set-up mirrors are placed at both ends of the cell and a beam of light is bounced back and forth between them (as shown in Figure 1), allowing for more time for the light to interact with the gas.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

When you tweet and the Universe tweets back...

Engagement with the public is an important activity for us here at PVL. Many would think about this largely as a one-way street with scientists preparing materials for public consumption, such as a presentation, a documentary or a book. But it's always a richer experience when you're having a two-way conversation, as Christina describes in this week's Blog post. Sometimes the level of engagement displayed by that response can be surprising! Note that the photo above is a word cloud she made from some of the jobs respondents are currently doing (sizes randomly assigned).

By Dr. Christina L. Smith
One of the things I think is important as a scientist is making sure that not only the scientific community knows of your work (and general existance) but also that the wider public is able to engage with you and your research, when appropriate of course. As my previous posts (i.e. poetry in science and the Rover Exploration Challenge) show I particularly enjoy getting involved in public engagement in a variety of formats!

A couple of months ago, I was invited to give a presentation at a “Future Women in STEM” (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) day held at York University, talking about my personal experience as a woman in STEM. I realised that, although there were a large number of very interesting presentations and activities on the agenda, mine was the only one revolving around someone’s personal experience in a science field. I’m also very aware that STEM careers are far, far broader than my own personal experience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Heiligenschein Throughout the Solar System

Greenler's 1980 classic "Rainbows, Haloes and Glories" is a must-read around our lab. I can remember being introduced to the book by my own PhD advisor, Peter Smith way back in 2003. It's still a useful and engaging tome, describing optical effects valid for atmospheres around any planet, and even some bodies without atmospheres! As for the photos above, they are annotated images of the Asteroid Ryugu, as Hyabusa 2 approaches (Images: JAXA), with arrows pointing to the area where Heiligenshein is observed.

by Brittney Cooper

Folks in the planetary community have been buzzing about the ongoing successes of JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 ( over the last couple weeks – and with good reason! Even though it focuses on a solar system body that has no atmosphere (I’m kiddingsort of), it is still an exciting sample-return mission that features some great science, 2 adorable hopping rovers, a lander, and a real-time image downlink. 
When I was scrolling through the down-linked images of Hyabusa 2’s approach of Asteroid Ryugu, a familiar sight caught my attention (and the attention of those who share in my niche appreciation for scattering and optical effects). It wasn’t the spacecraft’s shadow resembling a Canadian flag (though I think we appreciated that as well), but rather, a brilliant heiligenschein.