Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Getting the Amazing Opportunity to do Outreach with the Ontario Science Center

As part of our work on the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science's ERA program, we've been developing innovative ways to communicate rover operations to the public. Earlier this month we tried out a test of one of our events at the Ontario Science Center. Leading the charge was PVL MSc Charissa Campbell.

by Charissa Campbell

In my opinion, science outreach is one of the most important aspects of any public program. You get to teach people of all ages and can even encourage them to pursue science as a career. So, when our research group first discussed putting together an outreach program for high school students that would be like mission operations for a Martian rover, I was immediately on-board. Some of us are currently members of Curiosity’s mission operations team (including myself) so it was great to take that knowledge and adapt it. I’ve personally engaged in outreach programs in the past and still do on a regular basis with my young siblings, so I was excited to also be a part of this, especially in more of a leadership role. 

If you are curious about our May 2017 outreach program, you can check out Brittney’s great blog post: http://york-pvl.blogspot.ca/2017/05/analog-rover-missions-more-than-just.html. This was only the first of two successful runs in 2017 with varying levels of complexity. We knew changes had to be made from the first run, so we decided to broaden the roles and meetings to ensure participants didn’t get lost in the complexity. This did not, however, fix all of the issues from the first run.  Instead, we now had the opposite problem: the roles had become too broad. In the end, we identified the major problems with the program and made edits averaging the first and second run. Now in 2018, we have successfully completed a third run with volunteers at the Ontario Science Centre.

As we were running the previous two versions, we had been in talks with the Ontario Science Centre about collaboration. It would be the perfect location to run a program like ours as there is a huge number of people that go through the center daily. Since the Ontario Science Centre assess their programs to ensure they can be executed flawlessly, we were given the chance to run our program with their volunteers. This created a unique opportunity for us as it would allow us to test our program with adults (our last two runs have taken place with high school and middle school students) plus it would be an amazing opportunity to have a program that we created, housed permanently at the Ontario Science Centre.

Like the previous runs, participants were given a type of role with specific responsibilities and meetings to attend. Just like in real operations, meetings are crucial to ensure that everything goes smoothly with planning. The roles included Science Theme Groups (STGs) that would do the actual planning, Rover Engineers (REs) that kept track of instruments and Mission Lead (ML) that kept on top of the overall mission. However, one issue that kept arising in the previous runs was participants being too excited about what was going on around them and not necessarily following their role. 

To prevent this from happening we separated the REs from the STGs. If we were using one big room, this would be a bit of a problem but luckily at the Ontario Science Centre we were using the Challenger Learning Centre which has two separated but accessible rooms (See link for more information: https://www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/School/Challenger-Learning-Centre/). In this set-up, the STGs would plan their activities in one room while communicating with the REs in the other room to ensure they could use that instrument properly. For example, if you wanted to take an Oxygen (O2) measurement you would have to communicate with the REs to confirm that it was safe to use that instrument at that desired time. The REs were also responsible for driving the rover, whose traverse was previously planned by the STGs. This made sure that the STGs contacted the REs ahead of time, so they knew when to plan their activities with respect to the drive.

In total, the group was able to plan out three command cycles that were sent to the rover to carry out. Their science goal was to determine if their planet was habitable while also finding out other information such as if liquid water existed. Unfortunately, since we aren’t NASA and don't have millions to spend on a rover, our “rover” was other colleagues in our group and our planet was Earth. It still was a fun program to run and our participants thought creatively when getting measurements. But I’m sure you will all be pleased to learn that the Ontario Science Centre group found our planet to be habitable, even if it is cold and snowy out!

Here is an example of a panorama taken by our "rover". As you can see, this planet looks cold and snowy, which might cause problems for operations if you wanted to take a ground measurement. The group at the Ontario Science Centre were clever and used the rock hammer we had onboard to uncover the snow first. When continuing forward with operations the team only had this image and some maps that showed their general location. In real-life operations, we plan out drives based on our panoramas as we cannot physically go there to assess our Martian landscape. Do you think you could find a body of water using this image and a map of the surrounding area?

1 comment:

  1. Aye Matey. I 'ave sailed th' seven seas. It looks t' me that if yer planet were warm ye would be at th' bottom o' th' body o' water ye were lookin' fer.