Archive | November 2011


Over Thanksgiving weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the NASA Tweetup for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity. And I am definitely thankful for this opportunity. Those of you who do not know what a NASA Tweetupis and you tweet, I would highly recommend you check out the website I have linked. It is definitely a very creative and amazing way for an agency to get the word out about their programs. It is beyond the agency just having a twitter account, but it is actively using the masses or your followers who have twitter account to also help with outreach.This was my first NASA Tweetup and participants ranged from K-12 educators, artists, hobby astronomers, entrepreneurs, computer programmers and of course a few engineers. Everyone was a (space) nerd in one way or another, but very few (at least of the people I ran into) were engineers which was a bit surprising to me. But that really goes to show how approachable this program is, scientists are not the only ones who are drawn to this opportunity.

NASA has a range of tweetups from meeting former astronauts to rocket launches that place participants as close as the press gets to be.The most popular of the tweetups were probably those that surrounded the Space Shuttle launches, and sadly STS-135 (the final launch) was is when I first heard about the opportunity. Naturally, as a child who launched 2L bottle rockets and created PVC pipe model rockets stuffed with those single use cardboard rocket motors, I desperately wanted to be picked in order to have an excuse to go down to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of a NASA rocket. But additionally, I specifically choose this tweetup because it was the launch of the Atlas V rocket that would carry the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity on it’s 9 month trip to Mars.
Curiosity will be the largest rover we have sent to Mars and will have an extraordinary suite of analytical chemistry instruments. Instruments tasked to further explore the minerals on Mars for signs of prior or present life forms. The rover has 80 kg of instrumentation and one specific instrument, the CheMinwill analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s soil and rocks for signs of a past Martian environment that could had supported life.  CheMin is a powder X-ray diffraction instrument also capable of X-ray Fluorescence. ChemMin is using x-rays because minerals have characteristic diffraction patterns and enables us to identify of the crystalline structure of the materials the rover will see. CheMin is about the size of a shoebox, which is amazing as our lab PXRD is the size of a large armoire.  Therefore, I had to ask our guests the question: how did you make it so small?! Here’s how: the samples are vibrated (by a tuning fork) on a platform and are therefore suspended to allow all incident angles to be scanned. Rather than sweeping the incidence angle as we do in our lab PXRD, the sweep comes essentially from the rotation of the sample. Dr. Conrad said that this miniaturization of the instrument was actually very difficult, but it now has been commercialized and a PXRD the size of a suitcase can be purchased!

The highlight of this experience is seeing a rocket launch, but also a wonderful part of the program of a NASATweetup is the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their involvement with the project and to ask questions about being a scientist at NASA. The speakers for the science instrumentation on Curiosity were Pan Conrad (deputy principal investigator, SAM instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) and Ashwin Vasavada (MSL deputy project scientist at JPL). They did a great job presenting the excitement surrounding instrumentation being sent to Mars and the important implications for future Martian explorations in the discoveries. In addition to the amazing PXRD, the cameras and SAM instrumentation are actually able to inhale the martian atmosphere, providing real time, and year-round insight on the thermal, chemical, radiation and solar composition of the environment for future manned spaceflight to Mars. A key point that Dr. Conrad made was to not take the data that we will get back from Curiosity and compare it to what we see on Earth, but to think about how it fits with the data they have on Mars from other missions.

The Altas V successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am. Seeing a rocket launch for the first time was absolutely an amazing experience. What I was thinking at the moment: it is moving a lot slower than I thought nearly 900,000 lbs of thrust would be able to move a rocket. But my favorite was the complete silence until about the time the Atlas V was to hit the clouds. Ah, how slow sound travels. Seeing a launch really is something that you cannot tell someone about, there are not quite words, except, to tell that person: you need to go see one yourself. And if you sign up for a NASA Tweetup, you will be as close as the press.

But most importantly, a NASA tweetup is how you can be involved, it is how you can see what type of science your taxes are going to and then you go out to tell your friends and followers what you saw. As much as I wish I could bring people to my lab to tell them one of the ways that NSF funding is being used, it is not as exciting as space exploration, but the basic science is the same. The software to navigate Curiosity to avoid sand dunes (Spirit’s demise) was not build from scratch but perhaps was based on a graduate student’s thesis. The instrumentation I use in my lab will have a cousin, Curiosity, on Mars, that is built with the same underlying theories for analysis. Support in science leads to new markets, and an example is the suitcase PXRD. Government science does support industry* and will pave way for a successful future. On the second day of the tweetup, Lori Garver (NASA Deputy Administrator) gave the advice: talk to your congressmen. get more congressmen to believe in the investment of science, that missions like this provide data that will better our lives, bring new technologies that will open new markets and help us to prosper.

All images from:

Interesting Links:Sign up for upcoming NASA Tweetups

#MSL #NASATweetup on NASATelevision

Youtube video of, Leland Melvin, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Lori Garver presentation on Why Support Science?
* at the start of the Q/A (about 11:30 min mark) someone asks Lori Garver if NASA supports commercial space flight: basically, yes! NASA does support commercial space flight, and has always.

Official NASA video of the MSL Launch

Another piece of extraordinary instrumentation I did not talk about, the ChemCam:

Animation of Curiosity’s cruise state, entry, descent, landing, and surface operations:

Another Idea for Empowering Women

Ok, I know, I know I was going to take a hiatus, but I couldn’t resist. I decided to use my Friday evening to do a bit of catching up on Twitter/Blogs. And the uproar about Womanspace caught my attention. As I do have the desire to encourage more women into STEM fields, it might be good to join the conversation and to means in which we think about empowering women. I perhaps have another vantage point than the blogsphere, but I want to propose another way of considering the feature.

Personally, I thought the story was somewhat of clever yet approachable way of complementing women. The men were portrayed as lazy and not capable of completing anything. (guys? are you offended?) “…these otherwise unemployed elderly men…not having to listen to us blather on about just where to pitch the book, and what to put in it.”  These men were not the ones bringing home the bacon! There is no indication that the wife wasn’t a scientist! The exact opposite: “which smacked of desperate snatching at straws to excuse incompetence, to the astrophysics-qualified wife.”

Basically, I thought it was a cute tongue-and-cheek way of including us women into the sci-fi sphere where we are most often left out. And as a sci-fi nerd, I was happy to be included and thought of highly as to be given the ability to travel through parallel universes as our male counterparts had absolutely no ability to. not even to get a pair of knickers.

But what I wanted to address in the blog post more specifically is whether it is helpful to point out that this essay/futures is something to be angry about or to complain about. Yes, I agree, it does have some domestic stereotyping, but I see this “stereotyping” as a means of bringing an obscure concept of “crossing parallel universes” into the realm of “believable”. or as a means of a story arc, setting up that our female powers of crossing parallel universes and being qualified astrophysicists are the norm.  Why not bring out the strength of the wife being the lead. She tells and instructs the men with a task. and not hone in on the fact that she’s doing something “domestic”.

I am not sure how or at what point the lack of females around me strengthened me, but whenever I realize that I am the only woman in the room, that is exactly what encourages me to find a way to be better than all those men. Not cower away. Yes, I do believe the data on inferiority stereotyping but why not find a way to counter inferiority stereotyping? Find a way to tell girls “hey, so you are one of the few girls in this room, go you!” how did it get into their heads in the first place that this is a problem? A part of me just thinks that attacking a story as being too “stereotyping in that it has a woman in a domesticated role” when it includes women as the dominating role in a sphere normally not open to women (scifi) is not a way to counter the problem of lack of women in government, business and science.

Perhaps broadly this is the stance of “why tell me that I am hitting a glass celling?”. “I would rather not know where the glass celling currently stands.”

I personally don’t want to go against NPG for this reason. Futures is the one feature I actually look forward to reading every month.

PS: this summer I saw an EXCELLENT image that would go great with this post. It was a cartoon vintage poster? that was of a little girl in a bubble helmet climbing into a spaceship and a little boy following her lead. The blogger had mentioned that this type of poster was rare for the time period because 1.) there was even a girl in the picture 2.) she was the lead. If a reader has seen this, please please bring this to my attention! I cannot for the life of me find this image. In which this dilemma actually makes me sad that in real life I do not have parallel universe jumping capabilities to be able to find the image I am searching for.

Listen to Rep Price and Rep Holt!

It is exciting to read the efforts of many who are trying to make sure that the super committee is wise in what they cut and are aware that science is an important investment.

Here are a few important links to take a look at:

The two best Congressmen leading the effort to continue to fund science

You can take action here, solidarity with other Grad Students

But, basically I wanted to write a note here saying that I will now be buckling down to work on the data mtg. I will be back briefly for my very first NASATweetup and the MSL launch. Hopefully I will also write a post about that amazing experience of being present at the Atlas V launch of the next Mars Rover. (I am especially excited to learn how NASA can get ordinary people so excited and involved in their program. Their outreach is truly and example for all science fields. I ask this same question all the time: why is chemistry not more popular?! Great post by SeeArrOh.)

What would convince you that funding science is worthwhile?

Now that we are seeing some of the final FY 2012 appropriations being passed in both the House and Senate, I thought that it would be good to do a budget post. There were many Calls For Action last week to scientists, encouraging them to call/write to their Representative in the Senate to support the FY 2012 NSF budget at a level of little over $6.8 billion. I believe that the Senate did pass a series of appropriations that included the FY 2012 NSF budget, by a vote of 69 to 30.This year, perhaps more than any other year, there has been an incredible amount of discussion surrounding the Federal Budget. But I do not want to go into rehashing those events.Federal Funding for scientific agencies fill a significant detriment in the country as more and more companies are cutting their R&D departments. The Federal Government has the ability to encourage more R&D by creating aspiring mandates, such as the Fuel Efficiency Standards  announced in July in which current technology will not reach those goals, requiring companies to be innovative in order to comply with the mandates.  The funding appropriated to agencies in turn provide the Federal Government with the knowledge and research for feasible and high-achieving mandates that can in turn develop new markets and encourage innovation. Larger R&D departments = more jobs, better economy.A part of me wonders, why it is not an easy decision to continue to fund agencies like the NSF? $6.8 billion sounds like a lot of money, but it only comes out to, on average, $22/year/person. Is it the need to know what scientists are using the funds for? Does the tax-payer not want to support appropriations to these agencies because there is no accountability? I realize that this past spring, when the Senate report, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscopecame out, much of the media focused on the “absurdity” of robots folding laundry. But in that anecdote they failed to recognize the importance of studying computer simulated unordered tasks. The report fails to understand the process of science and its outcomes. The reason that I bring this report up is that although the report claims that a lack of accountability justifies cutting the agency’s budget, it is not clear to me that more accountability would fix the problem. Thus, I want to ask: would the public like access to publications as a means of accountability?Currently, a majority of peer-reviewed research is published in journals that require a license for access. These licenses are very expensive and institutions pay a significant amount of money for access to these publications. Currently, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has put out a call for input on allowing public-access to publications and it will be very interesting to see the responses.

In case you haven’t seen this yet: Jon Stewart parody, what are we scientists up to?! 🙂

What are some other means to better illustrate that funds towards scientific research is worthwhile?

Excellent post in Science Progress: In defense of the NSF

*edit 11.09.11: New initiative unveiled by NSF that will allow some proposals that will not go through the traditional review process. This new initiative is perhaps a means to address Congress’ criticism of NSF not funding “transformative research”? CREATIV