4 August 2012

Sol -2: Loose ends, interviews, landing site bingo, and Pixar

Posted by Ryan Anderson

With this blog entry, I’m switching over to a more journal-like style that I will hopefully use throughout the mission. When there are Big Science Ideas to talk about related to the mission, I will of course try to explain them in their own posts, but I am also going to be doing posts like this one (although likely not usually as long), sharing what my day was like, what the ups and downs were, and hopefully providing a window into what it’s like to be involved in the mission without crossing the line into that which must not be blogged.

Today my first goal was to make any final tweaks necessary to the paper of doom that I have been revising for what feels like forever. I essentially had to re-do half the paper with a statistical method that I had to teach myself on the fly, and whose results are still a bit mysterious. In any case, my co-author gave his blessing to the manuscript and so this morning I submitted the revised paper. It is surprisingly difficult to submit a paper. I don’t mean difficult in terms of the science (although that’s plenty hard on its own), I mean is is really a pain in the butt to go through the actual act of submitting a paper. The journal I was submitting to has this clunky web interface that only allows you to upload one file at a time. If the manuscript has images embedded in it, you also have to make high-res versions and submit them as separate files. And then because their PDF-generator somehow can’t read equations in .docx format, you have to convert to .doc format to submit and have your equations readable. Compound that with dumb mistakes on my part like forgetting to accept all tracked changes, and it took most of the morning to get the darn thing submitted.

The journal submission process is time-consuming, but there’s another reason it took all morning to get the draft submitted: For part of the morning I was busy being interviewed for the NPR radio show To the Point, along with the MSL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Emilky Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society. It was a fun interview! Ashwin detailed the landing system and some of the more technical aspects of the spacecraft while I handled questions about my areas of expertise: the landing site and ChemCam. Jonathan and Emily got some of the more challenging questions like “Why are missions like Curiosity worth it?” and “Why should we send humans to Mars and other destinations?” and they gave some really excellent answers. You can listen to the whole show online.

I’ve been getting lots of interview requests over the past couple of weeks, so here is a list of other articles where I’m quoted:

USGS Science Goes to Mars

Young Scientist Crosses Fingers for Mars Rover

Curiosity Readies for Dramatic Entrance

Curiosity Rover is Turning Point for Mars Exploration (free registration required)

Two Mars Scientists Prepare for Curiosity’s Descent to the Red Planet (featuring my former office mate Melissa Rice)

All this press attention has been lots of fun and somewhat surreal. I think this blog and my twitter feed are how some of these reporters found me, and I know that others were sent my way by Jonathan. He led the summer internship that I participated in at Harvard way back in 2004, and he gets interviewed by many reporters whenever there is a Big Space Event going on. But he’s an x-ray astronomer, not a planetary scientist, and he knew that I was involved in the mission, so he has been directing the interviewers to me. It has been a pain to have to clear every one of these with the MSL project scientists and the press office, but apparently I haven’t said anything too bad yet because they are still letting me talk to the press. I suspect it will become more difficult once we’re on Mars and (a) I’m busy with my roles on the mission, and (b) I have to wait for press conferences to really be able to say much about the science.

Once the interview was done and the paper was submitted, I tied off another loose end by throwing together an abstract to submit to AGU for the fall meeting. The deadline is the middle of next week, but I’m hoping I’ll have more pressing things to work on  at that time…

In the afternoon, I went in to JPL to pick up my “landing credential” (an orange tag that I wear wit my badge that will allow me to watch the landing coverage with the rest of the science team. I noticed as I walked toward the operations building, that a big tent had been set up outside, housing full-scale models of MSL, Phoenix, and MER, along with miniaturized versions of several Mars satellites. I now, finally, have a picture of myself, standing next to an MSL model so that I have a good way to show the scale of this beastly rover:

Me, next to a full-scale model of Curiosity. It is a big rover.

I also stopped by the printout of the landing ellipse in the operations building to play “landing site bingo”, also known as “guess where we will land!”.

The giant printout of the landing ellipse. You can't see it, but people have been using a sharpie to mark where they guess Curiosity will land.

Wandering around the operations building, I also noticed that there had been some redecorating done lately. There was a big poster from the Lockheed Martin folks:

And I really love the photos that have been stuck on the elevator doors:


The countdown above the elevator buttons, and the elevator doors on the right with an old map of the "canals" of Mars on the left, and a modern view of the planet on the right.

To round out the day, I joined a bunch of other folks on the ChemCam team and we went to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Pixar in Concert. It was a lovely evening: perfect southern California weather, the rolling hills with the Hollywood sign in the distance, and great music from all of the Pixar films, accompanied by montages from the films. I’m pretty sure I could listen to the scottish pipes from the Brave soundtrack and watch Pixar’s spectacular rendition of the scenery of the highlands roll by all day. And I am still in awe of the storytelling skill on display in the dialogue-free montage at the beginning of UP. And speaking of no dialogue, there was one film in particular that seemed fitting as a way to kick off this weekend:

All in all, it was a good day. Life is busy, but lots of fun, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to be in the middle of all of this. Landing is coming up unreasonably fast, especially with so much other stuff going on. Sunday night will be here before we know it!