Over the past few years members of the PVL have been attending the Planetary Science Short Course taught at Western University (full disclosure: I used to be an instructor in this course when I was a postdoc at Western). However, with the Western-based exploration CREATE cluing up, this past September may have been their final year. Luckily, our recent crop of graduate students was able to attend, including Elisabeth Smith, our new MSc who joined us this spring from Rensselaer PI in up-state New York.
by Elisabeth Smith
For seven days, four members of the lab – Giang, Jasmeer, Eric, and myself – were in London, Ontario for an intensive short course in Planetary Science at Western University. This was an important course for us to take, since we had varying degrees of exposure to planetary science, given our various backgrounds. My background is in Mechanical Engineering, and though I did take some undergraduate courses covering orbital dynamics and introductory astrophysics and astronomy, my knowledge in this particular area was lacking. Because I am now a research assistant in planetary science, I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about what I am researching.
The first day of classes covered the basics. We had two lectures - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Here we were taught about the different classes of planets, stars, and natural satellites, and were introduced to several of the leading hypotheses on planetary and solar system formation. The afternoon lecture covered various planetary datasets – that is, sets of data obtained from various scientific instruments.
We also were divided into different groups during this lecture. These groups would be our teams for the course. During the span of the week, our teams would work together on a project to develop a plan for a sample return mission to Mars. The details of this project were given to us during the first day, and we immediately set to work to meet the outlined goals.
Mosaic of Zumba Crater on Mars, taken with the JMARS software. This shows different images obtained from different instruments.
The next two days consisted of various lectures, covering planetary surface processes, planetary atmospheres and small bodies (i.e. asteroids, dwarf planets). We also received our first homework assignment – an interesting but very challenging task of using given numerical datasets to determine the
roughness/smoothness of a surface. We also managed to squeeze in time to work with our teams and get some of the details hammered out – where we would land, the different stages of the mission, which launch vehicle we would use, and so on. This was also a good opportunity to learn more about my teammates; we had all come from different places with a variety of background. Two students were Western graduate students with backgrounds in geology and had come from abroad. Two were students from Brock University and also had geology backgrounds. Lastly, one was an Engineering graduate student, like myself, from Michigan. It was very interesting to learn about the varied backgrounds and experiences of my teammates, and as I would find out, very helpful for the team project.
After our Thursday morning lecture, we had a very interesting laboratory exercise. In this exercise, we used the JMARS software to find various craters and points of interest on Mars. We then used datasets to find certain information about these different areas. The datasets, as previously mentioned, were all taken from different scientific instruments that had examined some aspect of the red planet, including visual images, elevations, and compositions. One of the most fascinating aspects of the software was how easy it was to look at data from thirty years ago and compare it to data taken in more recent years, especially the high resolution images of different parts of Mars. This software would also be useful for our project, we would discover, as it allowed us to better select landing sites and sampling sites for our theoretical mission.
We then had a full day of planetary interiors knowledge, where we had a lecture on the composition of planets and how to determine this information, followed by a laboratory exercise on doing so. This was also a tough but informative assignment. The final day of lectures covered astromaterials. We learned about asteroid and comet composition, and discussed meteorites. The afternoon session was yet another lab. In this lab, we actually looked at real meteorite samples under a microscope. All of the non-geologists were paired up with geologists for the exercise. My geologist partner, also one of my teammates, was particularly excited to show me the different materials within the sample, explaining what each of the different materials I saw represented and offering interpretations of what they meant for the meteorite’s formation.
After the lab concluded, the teams all got together to do final work for the presentation on our projects. Presentations would be held the next day, so there was much to be done. After a long night of hard work and pizza, my team finally had the presentation prepared and rehearsed. We presented our mission proposal to the course attendees the next day, and, in my opinion, did an excellent job. The course was still not quite finished however; all teams then had to write a report for their mission proposal, going into more detail on their equipment and mission plan. The deadline for this report has not yet passed, so currently several teams are still writing.
Overall the course was a very good experience. I learned much about subjects that I had very little to no prior knowledge in. It was also a great opportunity to make new friends from various backgrounds. I hope to put all of my newly developed knowledge and skills to good use in the near future.