Every spacecraft requires engineers to build and operate, and scientists to determine what information the spacecraft will gather and to study the data once it is on the ground. Engineers and scientists are very different groups of people, with different priorities, and so they need someone who sits in-between them to help them work together successfully. That’s where I come in.
I am a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works embedded in the engineering teams for two different spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Science Laboratory, which you may know better as the Curiosity rover. My science background lets me understand the concerns, priorities, and language of the science team, while my engineering experience lets me understand the limitations that our hardware and software place on the operations team.
Using its robotic arm camera, Curiosity took a set of images that scientists stitched together to create this "self-portrait."
For Curiosity, most of my work has involved making sure that the science team has the tools and the training to allow them to assemble a plan of the science activities for the rover to carry out each day. This responsibility included putting together the procedures that a science team member follows to get an activity into the plan. What are each of the steps involved? What exact information is provided to the engineering teams at what time, and in what format is that information? These were all questions that had to be considered, and the answers had to be fine-tuned as we went through our practice runs at rover operations (called Operational Readiness Tests) before Curiosity landed on Mars in August.
During the first 90 days of the mission, all of the science team moved to Pasadena and worked in the same building as the rover operations team. The scientists were able to debate face-to-face over what observations to take, work directly with the engineers that turned those decisions into commands for the rover, and to cheer as the data came down from Mars.
Curiosity performs series of tests with the robotic arm on a rock nicknamed "John Klein" to prepare for the first drilling to collect a sample of rock material on Mars.
However, no matter how awesome it is to be telling a laser-shooting robot on the surface of Mars what to do, at some point you want to go home, see your family, and sleep in your own bed. We needed to make sure that when our scientists returned home (all around the U.S., and also many countries including France, Spain, Canada, and Russia) that they were still able to do all the things that they had done here in Pasadena. How could scientists scattered across the world look over each other’s shoulders as they built a plan, and make suggestions and changes and quibble with each other’s decisions?
Ultimately we turned to a variety of web-based tools, including desktop sharing programs and teleconference lines to replicate individual meeting rooms, and a chat server to simulate being able to run around the floor to find someone who can answer your question. Getting our 400 scientists and 300 engineers switched over and comfortable with these tools was my job. It took a lot of troubleshooting and required patience, but the team has been operating under these new conditions since the start of November and it seems to be working well.
While my work on Curiosity is done and I’m moving on to another project, I’m pleased to know that my efforts will help the rover operations team do amazing things on the surface of Mars for years to come.
This entry was first posted October 17, 2012, on "My Big Fat Planet," a blog on NASA's Global Climate Change website.
I was a musician working at a Pizza Hut before beginning college which, in my case, was synonymous with poor. Looking for a brighter future (i.e., more money), I enrolled at Kansas State University as a computer systems major. The alluring thing about this major for me was that it required creative problem solving and had the promise of big bucks. During my time there I learned about programming and computer hardware.
However, the most important thing to happen to me was a course I took in calculus. Before I started college I assumed that math wasn’t for me. As it turned out, I found mathematics very intuitive. I enjoyed the creativity and elegance that came with problem solving, much like the creativity I enjoyed playing music. My original childhood passion was astronomy, and if I enjoyed mathematics then I reasoned that I could do well studying astronomy or physics.
With this in mind, I wrapped up my associates degree in computer systems and changed majors to physics in which I earned my bachelor’s degree. I became interested in the physics of light and lasers, so I did research as an undergraduate in a high-intensity ultrafast laser facility at the James R. Macdonald Laboratory at Kansas State University. I wrote computer code for graduate researchers that helped with their experiments and also spent six months assembling a laser system.
Artist's rendering of the CALIPSO satellite.
In graduate school, atmospheric science was an attractive path because I could apply the physics I learned to important problems such as climate and climate change. When I sent out my application to graduate schools, my soon-to-be advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign saw that I had experience with lasers and thought that I could work with data from the new (at the time) Cloud Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) satellite, which uses lasers to study the atmosphere. I hadn’t thought about working with satellites before I met him, but because it sounded interesting and involved lasers and the physics of the atmosphere, I jumped on board. I spent the next two years studying CALIPSO measurements to learn how aerosol properties change near clouds—a topic of significant uncertainty in climate science.
Eventually, I was ready to look for a job and, as it happened, an opportunity opened up for an analyst with the CALIPSO science team at NASA Langley Research Center. Since I had been working with CALIPSO data for two years and my interest in optics and aerosols fit in well with the team, I was offered the job, which I eagerly accepted – and every day since I have been glad that I did.
A CALIPSO vertical profile from space shows the smoke plume on June 3, 2011, from wildfires raging in Arizona. It is overlaid on an image captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on the Terra satellite nine hours later. The data shows that the Wallow Fire smoke plume reached heights of 5 kilometers ( 3 miles) high. CALIPSO and Terra are part of the "A-Train" constellation of five Earth-observing satellites. Credit: NASA /Kurt Severance, Jason Tackett and CALIPSO Team.
Working for the CALIPSO satellite mission is very exciting. I get to find creative solutions to complicated problems and work with scientists to understand what data from CALIPSO is telling us about Earth’s atmosphere. In April 2010, I worked with colleagues to examine the distribution and optical properties of volcanic ash that had erupted from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull and disrupted air traffic in Europe. NASA Headquarters asked several Earth observing satellite groups, including ours, to help identify plume location and provide guidance to air traffic controllers.
Since I have been with the CALIPSO team, my colleagues and I have also developed products for near-real time air quality monitoring and for climate modelers. I feel immense satisfaction that I work with a team that provides the high quality data that climate researchers need to solve the important issue of climate change.
It hasn’t been a straight path to get where I am today, but I am very happy with where I’ve landed.
My name is Christy Hansen, and I'm the Project Manager for a NASA Earth Science mission called Operation IceBridge. We fly aircraft over Earth's polar regions to collect data on ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice. Our airplanes have instruments that measure the elevation and thickness of the ice.
The IceBridge DC-8 undergoing final preparations for the first Antarctic campaign flight of 2012. Credit: NASA / Jeremy Harbeck
As we collect data over the same areas each year, we can monitor how the ice is changing. The information we collect can be used in scientific models to better predict the future. These models will help us to answer key questions such as: is our polar ice disappearing? Why is it disappearing? Will sea level rise, and if so, how fast? Will these changes in ice affect the communities of people and wildlife who live in our polar regions?
Each year, our team of scientists, instrument engineers, and flight crew deploy to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Early in the year, we fly up north, collecting data over Greenland, northern sea ice in the Beauford and Chukchi seas, and the Canadian Basin. Toward the end of the year, we typically go to Punta Arenas, Chile, basing our aircraft out of the southern-most tip of South America. From there, we fly over Antarctica, collecting data on the changing ice sheet, outlet glaciers, and surrounding sea ice. For these flights, we don't ever actually land on the Antarctic continent.
Recently, we have been asked to consider moving our southern IceBridge operations from Chile to the Antarctic continent itself. By doing this, we could reach new scientific targets, as well as get more science data collection hours by starting off directly from the ice.
Here is a panorama I took standing on a small look-out point called Hut Point. You can see the sea ice in McMurdo sound in the right of the photo, and toward the very left, you can see some of the buildings in McMurdo town. That big hill in the background is called Observation Hill.
To find out whether the move would be feasible, a small team of us performed a week-long site survey in McMurdo, Antarctica, in December 2012. McMurdo is the main Antarctic U.S. base, where most Americans in Antarctica stay. A team of specialists met us when we landed, and helped us to observe and learn about what aircraft and scientific operations are like in Antarctica. A short example of questions we needed to answer included:
- Where can we land our airplane?
- What are the constraints and rules of working on an ice runway?
- Where can we fuel our plane?
- What kind of support equipment do you have to support any maintenance we have?
- How do we work within the existing infrastructure?
- What if a storm comes in?
- What is the weather like?
Science Instrument Operations:
- How can we get power to heat our instruments while they are at the runway?
- What if we lose power?
- Can we do any data processing?
- Can we get internet, phone, storage space, and what kind of temporary buildings can we use to protect us and our equipment from the harsh environment?
- Where can our team sleep, eat, and work?
- What transportation is available to take us to/from McMurdo town all the way out to the ice runways?
- Are there any recreational activities?
Here's the coffee bar, one recreational option.
The trip request was a real surprise. Before I knew it, I was visiting 5 different doctors to see if I would pass the strict medical and physical qualifications required by the National Science Foundation. And then, I was off to Christchurch, New Zealand, where I spent two days with my team getting my extreme cold weather gear and watching multiple orientation videos on McMurdo and LC-130 safety. The LC-130 is a military, four-engine turbo-prop aircraft used to transport cargo and people to and from Antarctica. Its landing gear are skis to allow it to land on both hard ice and snow runways.
Then, on December 7th, we all boarded the LC-130, wearing our huge red parkas and warm bunny boots, which everyone must wear during the “ice flight” into McMurdo. We were essentially crammed in, face to face, for eight hours. But it was worth it! We landed and stepped out onto the Ross ice shelf for the very first time.
Ivan, the Terra Bus.
It was very bright, with the sun reflecting off snow that seemed to go on forever. I was wearing so many layers that I didn’t feel cold. We snapped a few pictures and then were carted back to McMurdo town on their famous “Ivan the Terra Bus” vehicle, equipped with huge tires to help get through the snow. It was already very late when we arrived, and we were exhausted. And then I’ll never forget the first words directed specifically to our team by our main McMurdo contact; he said, “I got you guys on a flight to South Pole station tomorrow!”
The ceremonial South Pole has flags from 50 nations which have agreed to keep Antarctica for peaceful and scientific purposes.
The next morning, we boarded the LC-130 headed for the geographical South Pole, latitude 90 degrees south! It was a three-hour flight. Then we had only 30 minutes to see the historic geographical and ceremonial South Pole markers. It was -15 degrees F, which the "natives" considered warm. The elevation at South Pole is ~ 10,000 feet, so in addition to the cold, we could feel the effects of the altitude. I tried to absorb what it meant to be at the bottom of the world, and take in the feel, sound, and history. Awesome.
The remainder of the trip was very successful. We met some great ice contacts and experts in their fields. Our team learned a lot and as an added bonus, got to experience that polar explorer feeling for a bit. Life in McMurdo is actually pretty comfortable, as it is not a true field camp. There are heated buildings, recreational activities, a coffee bar, four gyms, and my favorite of all: an ice cream machine called “Frosty Boy” that is open 24/7. He became one of my best friends.
If we move our team to McMurdo, we will need something like this tent. It is equipped with heat, internet capability, workspace, a phone, power, etc.
There is a huge science lab with an aquarium, a library, a weather station, and a small church. The whole town is situated on volcanic rock. And in direct contrast to that, McMurdo, situated on what is called Ross island, is surrounded by sea ice and a permanent ice shelf. We could even see seals resting down on the sea ice. I will never forget my experience there, and the great team of people who traveled with me, and who we met on the ice.
For more information on Operation IceBridge, please visit our website at: www.nasa.gov/icebridge.