28 August 2012

Danny Krysak: An out-of-this-world geologist (Accretionary Wedge #49)

Posted by Jessica Ball

For this month’s Accretionary Wedge, Dana Hunter over at En Tequila Es Verdad suggests that, in honor of the Mars Science Laboratory (and the rover Curiosity) making a successful landing on the Red Planet, we should talk about exogeology!

Dude. That is us, snapping photos on another planet like typical tourists. Okay, science tourists, but still. And this mission has got a lot of geology in it. I’m loving this mission. But it’s not the only time we’ve done some exogeology. So let’s don our space suits and explore some alien geology!

Well, exogeologists, I’ve got a real treat for you. You know those photos that we all tweet and blog and comment on and drool over when they come down from Curiosity’s cameras? Well, I’ve got an interview with one of the camera team who is, quite literally, the first person on Earth to see some of those photos!

Danny Krysak, Missions Operations Specialist with Malin Space Science Systems, with the Curiosity testbed rover (photo courtesy of Danny Krysak)

Danny Krysak not only has one of the most exciting jobs on this planet right now, he’s also a planetary geoscience graduate of my home institution, the University at Buffalo. He received his master’s degree in 2011 for doing research on Martian volcanism, and now he’s working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) camera operations team. He took some time out of his busy (and Mars-timed!) schedule to answer some questions about his work with Curiosity:

What is your official position with the MSL/Curiosity team?

My official title at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) is ‘Mission Operations Specialist.’  This basically means that I get to command and assess the health of the four main science cameras (MARDI, MAHLI, and the two Mastcams (34mm and 100mm).)  Additionally, I am one of the first few people to see the images as they get downlinked from Mars.

What do the camera acronyms stand for?

The acronyms are the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and the Mast Cameras, 34mm and 100m (Mastcam.)

Instruments on Curiosity (image from http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/Instruments/)

What’s a typical day like for you?

A typical day starts by waking up on Mars time.  To put it simple, since Mars has a different rotational period than Earth, so it has a longer day (JB – one Mars day = 1.026 Earth days).  On average, we will all start approximately 40 minutes later each day.  It’s nice when you get to sleep in and start at noon, however within a couple of weeks that will all change and you will be starting at midnight.

My main duties are in the area of downlink assessment.  This includes checking the data products that we receive to ensure that they were fully downlinked, checking the health of the instrument to ensure that it was operating properly, and most importantly making sure that the rover shut everything off afterwards.  We report our assessments at official meetings, meet with others on the team, and prepare for the next day.

How did your geoscience experience/research play into getting you the MSL position?

For my graduate research, I studied a volcano on Mars named Apollinaris Mons.  My research relied heavily on satellite imagery acquired of the surface.  Malin (MSSS) is a developer of space-based camera instruments and I used images from two of their cameras for my research (both the THEMIS and CTX cameras.)  I was introduced to the company through this, and was given an opportunity to interview with them as they had a position opening around the time of my graduation.  When I found out that I could be working on the newest Mars rover, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.  Additionally, I’ve also had a strong interest in computers since I can remember.  My research required me to work with computers every day (much of which was in a Unix-based environment.)  My previous knowledge of computers, as well as my graduate work, became a huge plus for me when I was interviewing since I was already doing similar work to what would be required of me on the job itself.

How did it feel to watch the landing from JPL?

It was AWESOME!!!  Seriously though, it was one of the most riveting moments of my life.  I was in a room with at least 150 fellow scientists and engineers.  The “7 minutes of terror” was literally just that.  Most of the room didn’t breathe for those 7 minutes (myself included.)  Every step during its descent felt like a ton of weight being lifted off of our shoulders, only to be replaced by even more anxiety for the next step.  However, it all turned into complete euphoria when we finally heard that one line we were all waiting for: “touchdown confirmed, we are safe on the surface.”

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team in the MSL Mission Support Area celebrating Curiosity's successful landing (Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingals, http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/?ImageID=4208)

Was it weird knowing that everything had already happened fourteen minutes before?

It was a strange feeling knowing that, however once we started getting data flow telling us where Curiosity was in her descent, all focus shifted right to that.  At that point it didn’t matter as to whether we were viewing the data in real-time or not, the adrenaline had taken over and wasn’t going to stop flowing until we were on the ground.

What makes Curiosity so special compared to the previous rovers?

For this time around, the rover got much larger.  Curiosity is roughly the size of a Mini Cooper.  She now has the ability to take HD images (1600×1200) as well as HD video at the same resolution, with approximately 4 frames per second.  We also have the ability to study Mars’ climate from the surface, perform chemical analysis of rocks, observe the radiation on the surface (this is especially important for a future manned mission to the planet) and more.  It is quite literally a laboratory on wheels.

Is it exciting to be one of the first people to see the images from the rover? Do you get to make any comments on what you’re seeing, or is that more the responsibility of the science team?

Heck yes!  I do not really have much input as to what we see in those images, actually.  That is left up to the science team to determine.  With that being said, I am still just happy with being the first person on the entire planet to see the image after it comes down 😀

One of the latest images of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, taken by Curiosity's Mastcam. Image from http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/?ImageID=4560

How long will you be working with Curiosity?

For the next 90 days (sols), we are all at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.  This is primarily for practical purposes so that we can have the entire team together under one roof.  In the beginning of November, many of us will be moving back to our home institutions to work from there.  The mission itself is expected to run for about two years, and I personally plan on being there for every moment of it.  If (when) the rover lasts longer, the mission will hopefully be extended, which you can bet I also plan on being there for.

Geoscientists nowadays are working more and more with computers – through numerical modeling, remote sensing, geophysics, etc. What kind of role do you see advanced computing techniques playing in planetary geoscience in the future?

As with any field, computers and technology are only going to get more and more important as time goes on.  We are getting more and more data with every new mission, whether it’s higher resolution imagery, topographic data, stereo images, etc.  Having computers to help us analyse this data is only going to become more important.  In future manned missions, I can only speculate that we will also have more “autonomous machines” to assist astronauts and explorers with their missions.  The field of artificial intelligence will more than likely play a significant role in this.  This is why I feel that it is also important that anyone wanting to work in this field, also have a firm understanding of computers and technology.  As sci-fi as it may sound, having the knowledge to work on and fix a broken piece of machinery while in deep space will be a very valuable thing.

Danny with some of the rockets outside of NASA's JPL Laboratory (photo courtesy of Danny Krysak)

I hear you put in an application for the astronaut program. Has space exploration always been an ambition of yours? 

Yea, so did you! (JB – We both applied to the astronaut corps last year, because we figured NASA can always use some more volcanologists!) It was always one of my dreams to be up in space. When I was a child, my father would always take us out with the telescope to look at the stars and I became fascinated with them early on.  I still have vivid memories of standing on our deck freezing at 3 in the morning to see comet Hyakutake streak across the night sky.  However, the coolest memory I have is the first time I actually saw another galaxy with my own eyes (well, through binoculars.)  I was standing with my father on that same deck, and when I realized that fuzzy patch was the Andromeda Galaxy, I was instantly changed.  The thought of being able to see another galaxy from my backyard struck a chord with me, and I knew from that point that I wanted to have space exploration play a huge part in the rest of my life.

And what got you interested in geology/planetary geoscience?

In addition to space, I was also interested in fossils as a kid.  I grew up in an area (upstate New York) where every rock in the ground contained some sort of long-dead critter.  When I was in college, I took a couple of geology classes for general education requirements, partly because of my knowledge of fossils.  Part-way through the first class my professor mentioned the field of planetary geology, and as soon as I realized that I could do something like that for a career, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  I was able to merge my love of space exploration with geology.

What advice do you have for aspiring planetary geologists?

All I can say are those typical statements of “stick with your dreams”, “never give up”, etc.  Don’t ever be afraid to be a nerd.  I was as a kid, and to this day I never regretted it.  Try to network as best as you can, and keep up to date with all of NASA’s current (and future) missions.  I remember watching the Mars Pathfinder land when I was a kid, and I remember thinking “Hey, that looks like it would be a pretty cool job!” …and all of those years later, here I am.

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Special thanks to Danny for taking the time to do this interview, especially considering his crazy work schedule! We’re all very excited to hear about the MSL mission, and especially to see the new images that are coming out every day. Just remember – Danny might have been the one getting those ready for you!