Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How to make your own moon

In the first installment of 2018, our resident experimental PDF discusses retrofitting our planetary simulation cryovacuum chamber to simulate a nearby environment: that found in the permanently shadowed regions of our own moon. An image of our first run can be seen above.

By Dr. Paul Godin

One of the experiments happening at the PVL is called the Aniu Investigation, which has the goal of testing to see if frost could be detected in shadowed regions of the moon using reflected starlight (Lyman-alpha radiation, 121 nm). Unfortunately, the moon is quite far away from York University and expensive to get to, so we’ll need to simulate the moon in the lab.

To build a moon in the lab we’ll need the following “ingredients”:

1.     A stainless-steel vacuum chamber.
2.     A vacuum pump.
3.     Liquid nitrogen.
4.     A “cold finger” heat exchanger
5.     Simulated lunar regolith
6.     A UV lamp.

Once we have all the above we can start building our moon. First, is to attach the vacuum pump to the vacuum chamber. The pump will remove the air from the chamber, allowing us to simulate the vacuum of space. Pumping out the air also has some other benefits from an experimental side; the lack of air in the chamber increases its thermal stability since there’s no longer a medium in which heat can be conducted/convected through the chamber. This means that temperature fluctuations in the lab are unlikely to be felt inside the chamber. A second benefit is air absorbs Lyman-alpha radiation quite strongly, meaning if we left the air inside the chamber the “starlight” would be absorbed before it even hit the surface of our moon.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Appeal of Space Engineering

This week, undergraduate space engineering student Alexandre Séguin reflects on what he might tell a high school student looking to match up their interests with a career path via a university education. In the spirit of such matching, the image above shows the Jules Verne ATV docking with the international space station (image: )

by Alexandre Séguin

As the leaves turn to darker colours and the sun makes its visits shorter by the day, I find myself preparing for yet another end of term examination session. Going over my different courses, I pondered that with nearly two and a half years of progress in York’s space engineering program, I interestingly have had the opportunity to explore quite a few different engineering disciplines. I have had a taste of electrical design, programming, 3D modeling, and orbital mechanics to name but a few. When I recently volunteered at the Ontario University Fair, I took these experiences with me to share them with new prospective students. One of the most common question asked was “Why did you chose space engineering?”. I responded with what I usually say, essentially that I liked math, science, and was good at both. However, now that I have a fair amount of experience as a student of space engineering, I believe the question merits a more thorough answer. In a time where apps and silicon chips rule supreme, what is the appeal to study space engineering?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Approaching a Defence in the Lab

The first of our current crop of 5 MScs from 2016 will be defending his thesis in December. This post captures Eric's thoughts as he approaches this milestone and ponders his contributions to planetary science.  While any one thesis is incremental, it is undoubtedly an advance; a stone placed atop what came before that raises the island of science higher.

by Eric Shear

It’s the time of year where I reflect on my research and how far I’ve come. The first draft of my thesis is due at the end of this week, so it’s crunch time for me. This particular project reminds me that science is not all breakthroughs. It’s more usually a series of partial successes and dead ends. It is these roadblocks that help us more, by showing us what doesn’t work. In either case, I must document my research. Perhaps someone else will build on what I’ve learned to build a better spacecraft camera.

Since my last post about using LCDs to increase contrast in spacecraft cameras, I’ve made a great deal of progress. I’ve taken over 90 images of the sun with clouds present in the field of view (but not obscuring the sun). Each image was with at least one LCD, and two-thirds of them were with two LCDs in the optical path. All images were taken with the same exposure time and gain.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the sun is so much more powerful than a mere table lamp, that its rays effortlessly penetrate the darkened patches in the LCDs with little attenuation. Take a look at the trio of photos at the top of this post. At left is the photo taken with one LCD filter, unactivated. At center is the same photo taken with two LCD filters, one activated so the circular block-image is visible. At right is both filters activated with both block-images overlapping to attenuate as much light as possible. There isn’t much of a difference between the centre and right photos.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The ice-sands of Mars

This week Alex gives an update on some of her work with Giang investigating small-scale topography of the Northern Polar Cap of Mars. As always with Alex's posts, expect her flowing prose to be punctuated with fascinating images culled from the many she has examined.

By Alexandra Innanen

With nearly 600 frames from all over the Martian north pole, my efforts have recently been turning to categorization of the nearly 600 variations on ‘polar cap’ which we’ve seen. This is the kind of repetitive work that I can do with the help of a good podcast and some tea, taking a break from my studies to flip through the catalogue of black and white features. Some of the various myriad features which I have been looking at are dunes. The Martial polar cap is lousy with dunes. Some of them are quite obvious, bringing to mind those classic sandy desert landscapes, while others are more hidden; zoom in on a seemingly uniform HiRISE image and suddenly stripy linear dunes start to emerge. There are basically four types of dunes that we’ve seen on the pole: longitudinal, transverse, star and barchan.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


PVL MSc Student Elisabeth Smith had a bit of a split personality over the summer months, interning at MDA and directing her research back here at the lab with the help of Undergraduate Research Assistant Keagan Lee. Now that she has returned to the lab full time, she is working on writing up the results and finishing up her Thesis.

By Elisabeth Smith

After a summer full of exciting robot testing, customer demos and Excel Macro writing, it was time for me to leave behind my internship and return to the lab and classroom. Having an undergraduate assistant to run experiments over the summer was a great boon, as he was able to collect large amounts of data and come up with an improved method for mixing the particles into my system during the experiment. This greatly improved the data collected for the experiment.

As a brief recap, my research is to develop a method for the determination of the turbidity (that is, the extinction or blocking of light in a liquid due to the presence of particles) by processing images of a laser. The experiment is conducted by shining a laser into an aquarium full of water, taking pictures of said laser, then adding a fixed amount of particles to the system and taking more images, repeating this until the laser is barely visible with the camera. Previously, I was running into issues with the particles simply falling to the bottom of the aquarium instead of being well mixed, resulting in a non-homogenous system. My undergraduate assistant, Keagan, and I came up with a few possible methods to resolve this – such as improved circulation systems, or allowing more time between image series to let the particles better mix. Eventually Keagan came up with a glaringly simple and effective method: remove some water from the system with a beaker, add the particles into that beaker, then mix well and return it to the system. The system would homogenize far quicker than previously, and there were little to no issues with particles settling at the bottom of the aquarium.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Time Management: When Undergraduate Research and Midterms Collide

This week, PVL undergraduate Brittney Cooper reflects on the hectic schedule of students, especially those who participate in research in addition to their regular studies. The image above is a snapshot of her desk. It might look a little busy, but research has shown that a cluttered workspace might not be as much of a disadvantage as you might think.

by Brittney Cooper

I’ve been a part of PVL for a while now (before we were even known as “PVL”!) and I began as a volunteer for a couple years during the school year, applying for grants to be a summer student, and then eventually I became a contract RAY (Research at York) student. I’m in my 5th and final year of my undergrad and I feel incredibly lucky and really happy to have as much experience in research and academia as I do now, it’s been a learning experience on many fronts.
One massively beneficial thing I’ve learned from this experience (that seems to dominate my life currently) is time-management. I don’t just mean the concept of it, I mean legitimately sorting out my weeks, days, even hours when times are tough (i.e. midterm season in your final year of undergrad, when you’re applying for grad school).
I kid you not, having a full course load and a part-time research gig has taught me to never underestimate what can be done in an hour, and in the madness of everything, scheduling my time is paramount. It is exhausting, but it is also exhilarating in a really kind of embarrassing way. Being productive and getting things done on my commute, during a break between classes, or just before attending to the remnants of my school-year social-life allows me time to enjoy my weekends. I am aware that this jam-packed lifestyle is not unique to undergraduate students; in fact I feel it is probably akin to what a great deal of post-grads experience in their respective fields, so I feel assured that this is a useful skill to hone.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Back to the lab (Back to reality)

This week, PhD student Casey Moore describes what he has been up to in the lab (in tandem with his MSL work!) Now that he has submitted his second MSL paper and is completing his PhD studies, his focus has moved closer to home to help explain some of his measurements. (By the way, don't fault Casey for that groaner of a title - I deserve all the blame)

By Casey Moore

I’ve been finishing up some loose ends for my PhD recently. I recently submitted my second paper to Icarus updating the line-of-sight extinction seen within Gale Crater, Mars using the Mars Science Laboratory’s Navigation Cameras (first paper here), which brings my time with MSL to an end. I will never forget working with such an amazing team of people and am eternally grateful to have been a part of the science operations team for the last four years. I have made contacts that I look forward to continue working with in the future as my career progresses past my Ph.D.

I do have one remaining project that has been consuming most of my time as of late. For the last four years, intermittently, between MSL work, teaching appointments, and conference preparations, myself and a long list of volunteers and summer interns have been collecting transmission spectroscopy data from an array of Martian analog regoliths.