Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Honeymoon Vacationing with the Very Long Baseline Array

Personal life has gotten in the way of space blogging lately, but blogging will return! In the meantime, here's a quick story that mixes the two.

In February, I was in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands with my husband on our honeymoon. St. Croix is the largest of the three USVIs, but still small, roughly 28 by 7 miles (or 45 by 11 km), small enough that we were able to explore the entire island. For the first half of our stay, we stayed in the more desert landscape of the east side of the island, not far from the Very Long Baseline Array station.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory's VLBA is an interferometer with a set of 10 radio antennas spanning from as far west as Hawaii and as far east as St. Croix (the easternmost point of the United States, according to the monument we saw at Point Udall). Each antenna is 25 meters, identical, and controlled from an operations center in New Mexico. It observes in the frequencies of 1.2 GHz to 96 GHz (28 cm to 3 mm wavelengths) with around a 10 micro-arcsecond resolution. It is used to research the 3D structure of the Milky Way, active galactic nuclei, black holes, dark energy, and the radio afterglow of gamma-ray bursts which is related to my master's degree research.

Yes, I was on my honeymoon, but I'm also a curious astronomer with a very supportive husband. Of course we had to stop by! We drove up to the gate and rang the doorbell. When the technician approached, I said, “Hi, I'm an astronomer on my honeymoon, can we come in?”

I then explained that I actually only did X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy and don't know much about radio telescope observations except what I've learned in classes. I do have two degrees in astrophysics, after all. Unfortunately, the technician was too busy for weeks to give any tours, but he was kind enough to talk to us for a while at the gate. He explained the antenna operations and maintenance as well as the array's popularity. My husband and I learned a lot. Next time we find ourselves on the island, we'll stop by again to see if we can get the behind-the-scenes tour.

VLBA Antenna, St. Croix, February 4, 2015

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Brave Explorers Being Miserable on Earth to Prepare for Space Exploration

Last night I attended Yuri's Night Part 2 in Cocoa Beach in conjunction with the annual Lunar Surface Applications workshop. Last year I also popped into this workshop for the Yuri's Night mixer as well. One of these days, I'd like to actually attend the workshop.

The event kicked off with a mini social where I hung with some of my space peeps. When a crowd had gathered, they began pulling names out of a box to win door prizes. I was the first to win a prize: a Fisher space pen which writes upside down. I also noted a 3D printing display that was showing space shuttle love.

Finally the big event began, a panel titled Isolated and Dangerous: Analogue Research for Human Space Exploration. Guest speakers included Jason Shuler of NASA's Swamp Works, Anne Caraccio of NASA, Tom Potts of Aquarius Reef Base, Ryan Kobrick of Space Florida (and Yuri's Night), and astronaut Cady Coleman (STS-73, STS-93, Soyuz TMA-20, Expedition 26/27).

Admittedly, as much as I would love to go to space, I have no interest in being miserable on Earth at analog sites. I would visit any of the analog sites for a day, but to stay for an extended period of time, no thank you. I did a week-long geology field camp with NASA's Lunar Science Institute Meteor Crater Field Camp a few years back which reminded me how much I dislike camping. I'll leave the analog research to those who like to rough it.

Jason (who I previously met when I worked with Phil Metzger a few years back) spoke about his experience with NASA's Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) in 2009. He described the issues with working in dust environments and within the pressurized vehicle Lunar Exploration Rover (now the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle). Part of his work was developing ways of easily donning space suits that docked to the vehicle. There is no substitute for field testing, he said.

Anne spoke about her experience at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). She spoke about how her crew adjusted to the analog by implementing a 40 min delay (sound takes time to travel across distances). They also limited their power and bandwidth and isolated their habitat. She noted that the high two-story space in the habitat helped psychologically with being in a confined space. They performed planned EVAs, suiting up to go outside. Inside they performed biology and human factors research.

Tom Potts, the director of Aquarius Reef Base, emphasized that the base is not just analog, it's an actual mission with “aquanauts” that is also used by NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). Aquanaut time underwater is limited to two weeks because of additional nitrogen in their body leads to saturation diving. ISS astronauts train on Aquarius and there are Aquarius - ISS video linkups. Research conducted on Aquarius includes the testing of space EVA equipment and rovers including a mockup lunar lander and telerobotics/telemedicine.

My friend and fearless Yuri's Night leader Ryan spoke about his experience Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in 2007 at Haughton impact crater in a very remote area of the arctic. His crew was from different cultures. They conducted space suit testing, human factors research, and a food study to increase enjoyment. For a month they worked on Martian time which is 23 hours 37 minutes per day. They conducted field work and sterilized their drill each time they took a sample. They also conducted a water use study to conserve water.

Astronaut Cady Coleman described her experiences on various analog missions and in the International Space Station. Everything is an analog, she said. She loved NEEMO except for using the bathroom surrounded by meddling fish. She lived in Antarctica for a time, moving tents every week. There, they search for meteorites and found a thousand of them, including a lunar meteorite. She spoke about the human piece and how to manage personal space and personal items. She then spoke about her time on ISS and some of the science experiments she worked on. Analog missions are to determine what's hard, what's easy, and what can we learn, such as improve space suits and equipment. As a petite woman like her, I can relate when she complained that space suits weren't designed for her build or size. 

The panel Q&A covered a lot of ground. Crew stress and personality conflicts in confined areas leads to problems. Everything is magnified because of lack of space. Ryan described the duct tape protocol: if a crew member went crazy, duct tape was the protocol. For psychological reasons, it's important to be able to have have a private conversations with outsiders as an outlet. Noise privacy is an issue. In an isolated area, you're forced to meet yourself, even if a stressed version of yourself. Getting people on the same page to solve problems is essential but also can be difficult. In the panel's opinion, the main problems remaining to create an outpost on Moon include logistics, infrastructure, funding, regolith ISRU technology, risk acceptance (less complaining, more doing). 

Great event, great crowd, and meeting Cady Coleman after the talk make her the 43rd astronaut I've met. I look forward to Yuri's Night next year.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Years ago: "Saving" Space and Changing Directions

Five years ago, President Barack Obama visited the Space Coast to give a speech justifying his cancellation of the NASA Constellation Program. Politics aside, I knew that our new president was not interested in space when his early presidential campaign stance was to cut NASA's budget to fund federal education programs. He further proved the point by canceling the major human exploration mission without bothering to come up with a replacement. (Whether Constellation should have been canceled is a topic for another time.)

When the President said that we'd been there, done that with astronauts on the Moon, I was furious. Not only is that ignorant, it's insultingly untrue from a scientific and technological point of view. Of course, Apollo was also about politics and not science. But what goes around comes around. Commercial space: a good idea but not a new idea. Mars: the ultimate goal, but how to get there? I've met the planetary scientist who proposed the Asteroid Retrieval/Redirect Mission and he's the only person I've ever met who is in fully agreement with that direction. The NASA Advisory Council is recommending and NASA is finally admitting that the Moon or cislunar space will be the next step in NASA's human exploration.

Five years ago, I attended a Save Space community rally in Cocoa in conjunction with President Obama's visit. Thousands of people attended. Here is what I wrote in my personal journal:

President Obama's cancellation of the Constellation program will devastate the Space Coast area and many other communities around the country. Thousands of jobs will be lost from the retirement of the Space Shuttle program and the lack of a replacement program in the KSC area alone. There will be direct and indirect casualties. The engineers and technicians will be hit the hardest, which will affect the KSC support staff, which will affect the general populations of the surrounding towns which provide food, goods, and services to these newly unemployed people who may need to move away.

It will seriously damage the Space Coast community who rely on the work and workforce (which totally busts the bubbles of clueless people who think we're wasting money by spending it in space, because we're actually spending it on people in all 50 states around the country for the betterment of our communities, our nation, and our world).

There were a fair number of politicians present, including a U.S. senator, two house representatives, a lieutenant governor, and a dozen or so local elected officials. As expected, speeches lacked substance. Most of them were general "go space!" talks, telling the President what he should say and do at this week's space summit at KSC. Two were completely out of left field by talking about sustaining military superiority by using space as a high ground, which made me think they had no idea why they were at the rally because military space programs have nothing to do with human space exploration, are not under NASA's budget, and are in no danger of being cut.

Finally, the three invited astronauts gave their speeches. Jon McBride (STS-41-G) called Constellation an unfunded mandate and demanded that the federal government provide sufficient funding for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, mentioning the great investment and returns from NASA such as spin-off technologies. Winston Scott (STS-72, STS-87) emphasized that we need to support commercial space development but not at the expense of NASA and mentioned inspiring Florida Tech students to enter space careers. Bob Springer (STS-29, STS-38) asked the Presidential Administration to step up and have shared accountability.

I called it: the cancellation of Constellation did damage the Space Coast community for several years following and many people did move away. I resurrected the local chapter of the National Space Society and created a space lecture series focused on local achievements to highlight that not all was lost. I also knew that the area would bounce back in time, and is has. Diversification and the influx of commercial space companies has helped. Here's hoping for better times ahead!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dragons and Synthetic Muscle Fire Off to Space

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, April 14, 2015

Godspeed, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule! I love living on the Space Coast and seeing launches with my own eyes. Although nothing beats humans soaring into the skies, I love witnessing science happen in space. And who doesn't love the fire and the roar?

I previously wrote about my role as a Scientific Research Analyst at the Center for the Advancement ofScience in Space. CASIS has four payloads on-board this Dragon and I'm so proud to have played a tiny role in one of them.

CASIS partnered with MassChallenge, a start-up competition and incubator program. Some of the competitors had great ideas to conduct research in space for the benefit of life on Earth. During the MassChallenge judging period, my job ramped up to a crazy degree! We were given several projects at once to evaluate and not much time before the winners were chosen. My department was a mad house at that time, working to find suitable subject matter experts in a large diversity of subjects to fairly evaluate all of the proposals submitted to us. We shined!

One proposal I had the pleasure of working on was by Ras Labs, a company that develops synthetic muscle for amputees. Ras Labs proposed to test their synthetic muscle electroactive polymers in space where radiaton exposure is greatly increased. By testing the radiation resistance of the material, Ras Labs can be confident that its products are safe for extreme environments on Earth. This proposal was awarded and today it flies to space. It's so rewarding to see it off!

It was a lovely day for a launch!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Yuri's Night Cape Canaveral: From USSR to Florida's Space Coast

Fifty-four years ago on April 12, 1961, the first human launched in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's flight marked a new era in humanity that even Sputnik couldn't: people in space. Every year since 2001, Yuri's Night space parties have celebrated this achievement around the world.

My first Yuri's Night was also Huntsville's first in 2008. Some of my friends associated with the local National Space Society chapter HAL5 organized the event at a local bar and restaurant. Being Rocket City, USA, there was a fair amount of interest in the space party. I've been told that the Huntsville events have been getting bigger ever since.

Yuri's Night parties on the Space Coast of Florida have gone through several iterations, each year very different from previous: a giant space celebration in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, two multi-stop pub crawls, a casual art gallery gathering, a packet party at Nolan's Irish Pub, a small picnic, and finally, last night's party at a wine bar in Cape Canaveral.

It's my annual trend and I didn't disappoint: the first thing I did upon entering the bar was stick a Yuri temporary tattoo on my forehead. I also pressed a sticker on my chest but it fell off rather quickly. This year was my husband's first Yuri's Night. He's a bit of a Russia / Cold War history buff so he could appreciate it. He gave me a Yuri Garagin USSR coin from 1991 when we first started dating.

There was plenty to do last night with hors d'oeuvre snacking, wine tasting, space photography, a live band, giant Jenga, a bean bag toss, bubbles, dogs, and an astronaut video recorded on the International Space Station. I mostly chatted with my fellow space geeks, including former Huntsvillian Bart who is pictured next to me in the 2008 photo above. At one point, Yuri's Night leader Ryan recruited me to take a quick video of speeches. Fun was had by all.

Yuri was Russian, but more than that, Yuri was human. Humanity's first step to the stars should be celebrated by all. Someday, I dearly hope that Yuri's Night is a natural holiday and globally celebrated. Until then, we'll just keep partying on year after year in our own way!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Judging Science & Engineering Awesomeness at Florida Tech

I remember how much of a rush science poster presentations are. Months or years worth of work presented on a large sheet of paper that needs to be both attractive and informative. I could never find the right balance between including all of the information to explain my work and making the poster presentable and uncluttered. For posters that are judged, all of that work needed to be put into a few minute spiel, summarized nicely from beginning to end, explained without knowing what kind of background the judge had and whether there is a need to start from the very beginning or if the judge will know more than I about my project. And then the questions – nearly impossible to predict and plan for them all. And I needed to be entertaining! It’s a challenge even for the practiced scientists, but for undergrads, it’s still a learning process.

3rd year judge, reporting for duty!

 Today I had the pleasure of being a judge for the third year for my undergraduate alma mater, the Florida Institute of Technology’s annual Engineering and Science Design Showcase. For the most part, the presented research are the senior capstone projects for the science and engineering disciplines. Given my background, I am a judge for the Physics & Space Sciences section, which this year was dominated by astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary science. A fellow judge was a physicist with no astronomy background, so he learned a ton!

The Physics & Space Sciences section

As usual, I was the only young female judge in my section. In fact, at the pre-event reception yesterday evening, I was mistaken for a student! This happens fairly often, regardless what I’m wearing or how I present myself. I’m sure I’ll appreciate my youthful appearance more as time goes on. I was also the only judge with formal astrophysics training in my section, which allowed me to assist my fellow judges. I learned quite a bit from a fellow judge with lots of lightning and atmospheric phenomenon detection experience!

The P&SS winner showing off pretty Hubble images

 This year we were to judge twelve poster projects, and for the first time since I’ve been doing this, all of the students were present to discuss their research. There also seemed to be an impressive spread of good projects in my section this year, better than years before. The current senior class should be proud! By the end, a full half of the poster presentations were in the running to win based on the diversity of judge opinions. In the end, my #1 was chosen as our overall #1 and my #2 was chosen as our #2, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

The physics & space science projects this year has a different focus due to the addition of new faculty. Research included magnetic fields on stars, the makeup of the regolith in craters on the Moon, testing image processing techniques, orbital dynamics of dwarf planets and their moons, halos from sprites (related to lightning), exoplanet periods, Large Hadron Collider detector hardware, SX Phoenicis stars, and the winner, locating supernovae in Hubble Space Telescope deep field images using artificial neural networks.

After my section had submitted our final scores, I browsed the rest of the projects. I’ll admit my bias toward hardware: specialized cars, aircraft, canoes, model buildings, improved rowing machines, virtual reality equipment, underwater rovers, Mars rovers, lunar rovers, and even an improve football trainer. Such diversity!

Mars rover design

UAV design, getting ready to compete

Regolith mining rover design, getting ready to compete

Underwater rover design

Pretty canoe

Maybe it’s my faulty memory, but I don’t remember presenting a final research project when I attended Florida Tech. At the time, it may have just been an engineering design showcase. I love the expansion into the sciences and I’m honored to be a judge each year. I conducted research as an undergraduate and I believe that’s an essential component of an undergrad education in science or engineering.

Just being back on campus where I used to give tours when I was a student brought back memories. I moved from Pennsylvania to Florida for college for the great education, the proximity to Kennedy Space Center, and the warm weather and local beaches. I loved my time at Florida Tech! I highly recommend it to any student interested in the disciplines that the university specializes in. Each time I visit the campus, I run into professors who bring a smile to my face and are so proud to seem me succeed. It’s largely because of so many of them that I was able to survive an astronomy/astrophysics major, gain summer internships, and go off to grad school. I have a lot to be grateful for and I’m thankful that I can give back in small ways.

My official Florida Institute of Technology graduation photo, May 2006

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Planes, Telescopes, NASCAR, and Commercial Space? Must be ERAU!

Today's travels took me to Daytona Beach. Between the speedway and the airport sits Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a small private school known for aviation with a brand new program in Commercial Space Operations. I've visited the campus a handful of times, but it had been a while. 

My first stop was the College of Aviation where I met up with Dr. Lance Erickson. He recently asked me to join the CSO Advisory Panel and to come to campus to speak about my company at one of his CSO seminar classes. The class was a mix of undergraduates, including a number of students looking ahead to internships and jobs. I filled them in on who S3 is and what we do. They asked some great questions. And for the first time in the handful of student talks I've given, I awarded all three S3 holographic bookmark prizes to students who were able to give good answers to my questions! A group of them were even interested in creating a microgravity payload to fly on a future parabolic “zeroG” flight.

One of my former professors from my undergraduate university, Dr. Terry Oswalt, is now the chair for ERAU's Physical Sciences department. He was kind enough to chat with me and give me a tour of the new 1-meter telescope which hadn't yet been completed when I was on campus last. We also went out on the roof where we could see smaller telescopes mounted to the roof, the main observatory dome, and the smaller solar observatory dome. The “24” magnet on the telescope mount is from when NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon toured the observatory – perks of being in the Daytona area.

More and more I'm realizing that this blog and my non-work-related outreach efforts are being geared toward students, especially high school and college students. Speaking in these seminars is a great way to meet with interested students and give them my contact information so that they can follow up (which they very rarely do). Even better would be to connect with students anywhere in the world interested in science and space careers who would like to have a conversation and perhaps a continued professional relationship, whether that is mentoring or something more casual. If anyone can point me in a direction to best do this, I'm open to suggestions.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Science Orbiting Overhead: Awesome ISS Projects with CASIS and Proposal Writing Tips

The International Space Station orbits at roughly 400 km / 250 miles above us at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour. Every so often, SpotTheStation notifies me that I can view the ISS from my location at night. Depending on my schedule and whether or not I've forgotten, I catch the ISS passes about a third of the time.

Friday night after Good Friday celebrations, my husband and I paused in the church parking lot to watch the space station pass by overhead. I'm always amazed at how fast it travels across the sky, though even at that speed, it was visible for several minutes. It's bright, brighter than I would expect, and could be mistaken for a moving planet, a non-blinking plane, or a long-lasting meteoroid. It still amazes me that this shining little dot is a large space station home to several astronauts and countless research projects, some of which I helped to make happen. It's humbling.

Two weeks ago marked two years since my first day working at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, a small nonprofit whose mission is to facilitate research on the ISS to benefit life on Earth. At the time, I was seeking a postdoc or a full-time post-grad school job. I had heard of CASIS (pronounced cay-sis, not caa-sis) but I hadn't realized that its headquarters is located on the Space Coast. A colleague informed me that they were looking to hire scientists and encouraged me to apply. I was hired on as a Scientific Research Analyst.

One of my primary roles was to study the research proposals given to us to fly research on the ISS and evaluate the quality, feasibility, and likelihood of success of the work. I wish that I had kept track of the number of projects that I was in some way involved in, probably close to 100 in my year and a half there! My job was that of a filter, weeding out the less worthy or too expensive projects in order to find the ones that were most likely to succeed. For most of the projects, I interacted with scientists in various fields across the country to obtain and review proposals.

For larger areas of interest, I wrote request for proposals (RFPs) on specific target areas. For individual projects, any and all science was fair ground for me to assist with, but my specialty is the physical sciences and especially remote sensing due to my astronomy background. My RFPs were remote sensing or Earth observation related. For those RFPs, I helped organize and run science review panels with experts in the field from around the country. I also worked with a scientific advisory board to help advise us on which scientific areas we should focus on.

This was a new role for me in that I got a huge amount of experience learning how proposals should be written by evaluating them. By reading and comparing poor proposals with excellent proposals, I now have a pretty good idea of what makes for a more successful proposal. For example, a poor proposal ignores instructions and guidelines, is not proofread or edited, reads more like a marketing document than a scientific paper, and makes claims without supporting evidence. We got a good number of “crackpot science” or pseudoscience proposals during my time, too, which were always entertaining.

Contrastingly, a good proposal very nearly takes the instructions as a template and responds to each question one by one, clearly outlining the research and explaining points with scientific justifications and evidence. Evaluations are based on the answers to questions posed in the instructions. Paraphrasing here, these are not actual questions, but you get the point:

Q: What is your project? A: My project is to do this and this by executing these detailed steps.
Q: Why? A: The scientific justification for my project is this with these supporting references and examples and this completed background research.
Q: Why do you need to use the ISS? A: We need to use the ISS for this undeniable reason to supplement ground-based research or because we cannot conduct this research on the ground.

I also had to learn to stand my ground and fight for my professional opinions when others were also fighting just as hard for theirs. This meant that I had to be confident about my scientific analysis and I have enough professional integrity to stand up for my conclusions, even if I was overruled in the end. Already a natural networker, I also tried my hand at a bit of business development, reaching out to scientists and engineers to inform them of the opportunity to fly their research on ISS. I supported conferences and workshops where I met with researchers wanting to use the ISS for their research.

An important point that I had to repeat over and over was the difference between CASIS and NASA. Firstly, NASA's ISS office is the big cheese and has way more resources. In a way, CASIS is a contractor for NASA with the flexibility and creativity to try to take a little budget and make a big bang. Another main difference is that the focus of the research that CASIS supports is research done on the ISS or to support research done on the ISS to benefit life on Earth. Every project awarded had to have a direct application to benefit humanity on Earth.

I can't talk about a lot of the projects I worked on, but I can mention these favorites that were awarded and published that I personally assisted with:

  • An Earth observation project to study harmful algal blooms (red tide)
  • A project to improve metal alloy creation used in golf products
  • A study using the microgrid power system on the ISS to improve microgrids in remote areas on Earth
  • The testing of a new imaging technology called charge injection devices similar to CCDs
  • An Earth observation project to study minerals in playas
  • An Earth observation project to study how carbon emissions in vegetation change due to stress
  • An Earth observation project to study water quality in the Great Lakes
  • A project to fly flatworms to study regeneration of tissue in microgravity
  • An improvement to the maritime vessel tracking system detecting ship transponders
  • A technology demonstration project to return small payloads to Earth from the ISS
  • A technology demonstration project to assemble small satellite modules in space
  • An Earth observation project to study tropical cyclones (hurricanes)

If you're interested, CASIS is hiring! I no longer work there so I can't help you much, but you can learn more on their website: http://iss-casis.org/.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sandblasting Craters for Future Space Landings

Coincidentally, I got a message today from my colleague Dr. Phil Metzger asking me about research I had done during my grad school days at UCF in 2012. Phil is now a researcher at Florida Space Institute based out of UCF, but at the time, he was a research scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in a lab that is now known as Swamp Works.

As I wrote in my previous entry, I spent much of my research at UCF conducting experiments in vacuum chambers. So what was I do to when my vacuum chamber broke and needed a replacement part that would take two months to obtain? Summer vacation? No, find other work to do. With the help of Phil and the Florida Space Grant Consortium, I spent much of the summer working in Phil's lab.

Similar to my marble into regolith impact experiments, Phil had done some work sandblasting regolith with jets to mimic a retrorocket landing on a planetary body to understand how craters are formed. We wanted to continue those experiments using varying jet width sizes, intensities, and heights above the regolith. We also used several types of granular materials, including many light ones such as plastic confetti and corn cob pieces to simulate a reduced gravity environment such as Mars.

We conducted the experiments in clear boxes with half of the jet of gas shooting in and half out in order to capture a cross section of the experiment. We recorded the blasts and looked at the way the crater formed and how the granular material moved due to the gas, studying the videos frame by frame. Similar to my marble impact experiments, the ejecta or ejected material (the splash) and the crater rim also mattered.

What I thought was the coolest (aside from blasting stuff at high velocities, of course) was the way the crater walls formed. The regolith along the sides of the craters spun like caught in a bad wind storm, creating multiple little vortices (or vortexes, if you prefer). The crater walls seems to move upwards in waves against the direction of the current. Just like blowing air through a straw into a drink, the liquid needs to move up and over, out of the way of the incoming air, and the air bubbles carry the liquid up. Granular materials act a lot like a liquid despite being made of many small solid pieces. It's fascinating to watch.

I also got to play with microscopes. I took magnified photos of the materials I used. I think amber is the coolest material to image close up out of the ones I used. I needed to understand the properties of the materials and measure the angles of repose, that is, the steepest angle that I could pour the grains into a pile without the side of the pile sliding down.

One summer isn't long to do much research and Phil is continuing the experimentation. Best of luck to Phil and the students who take this work on!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Sloooooow Impacts: My Time at UCF

Today's travels brought me to the University of Central Florida in Orlando where I conducted my doctoral work. I met with my former advisor, Dr. Josh Colwell and several other professors of the Planetary Sciences group in the Physics Department. I took a tour of my own former lab and got to see what new projects the lab group is working on. I was tickled to see that two of my old conference posters still hung on the walls. Such memories!

I started grad school at UCF in January 2010 after gaining my master's degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Up to that point, all of my research had been astrophysics analysis. I had obtained astronomy data from space telescopes and processed that data to make sense of what we were observing. I didn't do observational astronomy myself, so I didn't have the experience of doing any hands-on research.

I could have gotten involved in telescope operation, but instead I decided to try something a bit more alien. I went into experimental planetary science using analog dirt (regolith), reduced gravity, and low pressure in vacuum chambers to transform a terrestrial experiment into simulated extraterrestrial.

My heart has always been on the Moon, so Josh's research appealed to me. He examined low velocity impacts on planetary body surfaces. At the time I began at UCF, NASA's Constellation Program was in motion and so much research was being focused on lunar science. When the direction of NASA's human exploration program became less clear, the research was broadened to any kind of planetary body with a dust or soil surface. The research was also useful for studying the interactions of dust particles in space, such as the early formation of planets or planetary rings. Earth is also a planet, so the research was also translatable to Earth surface impact models.

Much of my research at UCF was focused on the continuation of an impact experiment which involved dropping marbles into granular materials such as small beads, fake lunar regolith, and fake Mars regolith. These experiments were often conducted in a vacuum chamber that was depressurized to minimize air molecule interactions and mimic a space environment. The small heights that the marbles were dropped didn't allow for much speed to build up. We wanted the impacts to be as slow and low energy we could make them.

To get even slower impact speeds, we build a drop tower in the lab. Using the same principle as a roller coaster or amusement park drop ride, drop towers allow for moments of microgravity while the canister is free falling. Our small drop tower gave us less than a second of microgravity, but that was enough. We used light springs to push the marble into the regolith at velocities lower than what we could achieve with a tabletop experiment. To obtain even longer periods of microgravity for our experiments, we used parabolic "ZeroG" aircraft. Last September, they even put an experiment on the International Space Station.

The splash from the impact and the resulting ejecta (ejected particles) informed us about the way that regolith acts. We want to understand how much ejecta is kicked up, how far it spreads, how fast it travels, the tendency for the regolith to be cohesive and stick together, how differently the regolith acts if it's packed more densely, and other characteristics. In more advanced versions of the experiment, a clump of regolith impacted with a regolith surface or two clumps of regolith impacted each other, all at very slow speeds.

Much research has been done to study high velocity impacts, but low velocities impacts have been largely ignored because they're harder to do. By looking at the boundary between whether splash happens or doesn't happen from an impact, we can understand how impact energy is distributed in a material. By throwing clumps together at slow speeds, we can understand when two clumps in space may hit and stick together, forming a larger clump, or hit and break apart, forming pieces, or maybe even just hit and bounce off each other unharmed. Understanding how bodies are formed in space helps us to understand how Earth came to be.

I researched at UCF until I obtained a job at CASIS two years ago this March. I also took classes and completed all the requirements for a doctorate in physics except for the dissertation and the defense. This is a topic for a separate entry, but it was the right decision for me to move forward in my career. I accomplished what I had set out to accomplish, learned a ton, and lived some great experiences. I also got my hands dirty for a little while!