Friday, 28 June 2013

Thinking outside the cube

Innovation happens when people fearlessly try to do something that no one has done before.  Very few people actually act on their crazy ideas that “should work”, and really disrupt the way things are done.  PlanetLabs seems to have done just that. 

Cubesats are tiny little satellites (cubes as small as 10cm on a side, sometimes called nanosatellites), and they used to be limited to student-type experiments.  The idea is to make them cheaply using as many commercial off-the-shelf components as possible.  Because they are so cheap, and because you can get several of them to work together, you can accept a higher risk of failure, making the entire mission cheaper.  Launching these satellites is usually quite cheap as well, since they can usually ride “piggyback” on other launches.  Dedicated launches are not required.

With time, technologies to improve pointing accuracy, power systems, and communications capabilities have begun to make these platforms useful to do jobs that would only be done by much larger satellites in the past.  As an example, Canadian scientists recently launched a contribution to an international constellation of satellites for doing astronomy from low Earth orbit called BRITE.

Planet Labs is not only taking advantage of all these developments but they are also attempting to change the culture of opening Earth observation data from space to everyone.  Once complete, their system will allow for medium-resolution imagery (3 to 5 metres), and all the data will be publicly available to anyone.  Because there will be so many nanosatellites in orbit once the constellation is complete, revisiting a site of interest will be possible with short delays. 

Farming, natural disasters, deforestation, forest fires; these are all examples of uses of this data.  The idea is that when a lot of data that is regularly and frequently updated is made widely available, new uses will be discovered, new commercial opportunities for using the data will be created, and human kind will ultimately benefit.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pew! Pew! Laser beams in space!

The Curiosity rover currently on Mars continues its trek to find habitable zones - places where life may have been able to exist in the past.  It does so by using a number of instruments on board.  But what if you can't reach the sample you want to analyse with the robotic arm?  What if you're trying to survey an area to figure out which might be the most interesting place to investigate closer?  Use a laser!

Curiosity is equipped with a laser that is powerful enough to vaporize and ionize rocks and soil, from afar.  These images, taken in May 2013, are of soil being zapped from 3 metres away, and you can see a pit being dug by the shock wave created when the plasma expands (a plasma is ionised gas).  Instruments can then analyse the plasma "cloud", from afar, using a specialised camera, and start to understand what the rock or soil is made of.  It can tell scientists the elements that are included in the rock or soil, and any special characteristics (like if there may have been water present).

This is not the first laser at Mars. The NASA Phoenix lander had a laser aboard, a different kind, contributed by Canada, to analyse the atmosphere. This laser, as part of meteorological station, was used to detect the first snowfall on Mars. You can get more info about the Phoenix mission here and you can see the CSA podcasts that I co-hosted here.  There was also a laser orbiting Mars on the Mars Global Surveyor that mapped the topography, measuring the altitudes of the geological features of Mars.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

High-altitude ballooning coming back to Canada

Today new infrastructure for launching high-altitude balloons from Timmins, Ontario is being unveiled.  Who cares?  You should, if you care about having a basic human capacity created and maintained in Canada for doing science and technology in space.

Ballooning is not new to Canada.  In fact, many of Canada’s first wave of space scientists “cut their teeth” on space instrumentation using balloons as platforms for doing experiments studying the Earth’s atmosphere.  But, as it often happens, programs evolved and new priority areas required more funds than originally planned and one of the first things to go was this ballooning capability.

Credit:  CSA
For the last few years, under the vision of (former) Canadian Space Agency president Steve Maclean, CSA has been working on bringing ballooning back to Canada; in a smart and different way.  

First of all, why is ballooning important?  Ballooning comes as close to an orbiting satellite mission as you can get, without launching into orbit (sounding rockets are also an important and complementary system).  Balloons allow you to look down at the Earth, out into the atmosphere, and up to the universe to make scientific measurements, and also to test, qualify, and practice using instrumentation.  These balloon systems are quite impressive; they can fly to over 40km in altitude (130 000 feet), carry two tonnes of payload, and the balloons (usually filled with helium) can be the size of an entire football field.  At those heights, stratospheric measurements can be made and a lot of the atmosphere that gets in the way of making certain types of astronomical measurements is below you.  Flight times can vary from hours to even weeks, sometimes even making circumpolar flights.

The French space agency CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) has been launching balloons for decades.  They have been launching them from all over the world in a sustained fashion, including many from Europe.  A balloon launch and operations team is not something that be created “as required”; it needs a minimum level of activity to maintain its capability to operate safely and efficiently.  Luckily, CNES has continued to keep this capability going.

For atmospheric measurements (probably the most popular experiment on balloon platforms), the latitude at launch really matters.  Here’s the issue:  launching from Europe from mid-altitudes (35 - 60 degrees North of the equator) has become pretty much impossible, because of increased safety requirements and increased population density.  CNES (or anyone) cannot take the risk of a balloon system failing and falling to the ground and injuring someone.  Here’s the smart part - Canada can help!

What CSA is doing is creating a partnership with CNES to bring the CNES ballooning experience and capacity to Canada.  CNES needs a launch facility at mid-latitudes over a sparsely-populated area and CSA needs to provide a program to build the capacity in Canada for space missions in the future.  A match made in the stratosphere.

Why Timmins?  A joint CNES-CSA team carried out a detailed study of locations in Canada that took into account latitude, winds at different altitudes at different times of the year, logistical constraints, airspace access restrictions, precipitation averages, and a number of other factors including the cost of setting up the launch infrastructure.  They ran simulations of flights using meteorological data, and determined that Timmins optimizes all of the factors.  This will allow for long flights at more times of the year, it has clearer weather, an existing airport infrastructure, in an area that is sparsely populated, and a nice collaboration from the local authorities.  A nice perk of Timmins is that locals speak French, making the CNES teams feel more “at home” when they visit during launch campaigns.

The agreement will allow Canadians to use some of the payload capacity of the French balloons when they fly in Canada (or anywhere else in the world), and it will give CNES the capability to offer Europeans more flights at mid-latitudes.

Sustained, regular access to suborbital platforms such as balloons (and analogue sites) will support the development of the next generation of Canadian space scientists and engineers.  Just like in the laboratory, not every experiment is successful, and making mistakes and correcting those mistakes is part of the training process.  Unfortunately space missions do not happen often enough and risk of failure is minimized, so it is difficult to involve students.  With this program in place, the idea is that students will be able to go through the entire process of flying a space mission:  design, build, test, qualify, fly, gather data, operate an instrument, analyze data, make mistakes and try again, and make conclusions, within a typical master’s or PhD cycle.

In addition to supporting student development, this platform can be used by the larger community to carry out needed atmospheric and astronomical measurements, test out hardware to be flown in space, or make concurrent measurements in order to calibrate data being gathered by satellites.

A series of qualification test flights need to be carried out before the first large payload flies later in 2013 or early in 2014.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

It’s about people, not robots!

Something wonderful happened at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) last week.  Yes, there were robots and lasers and gadgets and remote control-stuff going on in a Mars-like environment, but that was not the best part.
The best part was that a group of students, affiliated by common interests through a training program funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), learned how to operate a space mission.

Guided by their professors, these students learned how to set the scientific objectives for a mission, determine how to meet those objectives through investigations, design experiments using instruments to make measurements, plan a mission for a robot to go out and make these measurements in the Mars yard, deal with anomalies, gather data, and analyse the data.  They had to work as a team, develop efficient communications, and they had to develop decision-making protocols to be able to make the so-called “analogue mission” a success.

I love these analogue missions because if you do it right, it’s not about the robots, it’s about the lessons the people learn while carrying out these missions.  Operating a mission is a skill in itself that is best learned in a hands-on environment.  Robots and instruments need to be designed around scientific questions, not the other way around.  It's through this type of activity that you really learn how to do science in space.

Despite deep cuts in their budget and staff, the great people at CSA made their facilities available and what is left of their expert staff to the joint activity.  They are working with academia, industry (who built the robots), and NSERC (who fund the universities), to try make sure that the human capacity to fly missions in space might actually still exist in Canada when the federal government wakes up and realizes that Canada has fallen behind internationally in space activities. 

Even if in two years, a new government comes in and “turns on” the money again for space in Canada, we won’t be able to react efficiently.  People are leaving CSA now and leaving the country now and we will not be left with the human capacity to invest the money smartly, unless more of this relatively cheap type of training activity continues.  It can take 10 years to train someone to become a contributing member of a community like the space community.

Let us never lose sight that there are people behind technology.  Even if the money for space is not a priority, the money for people must always be a priority.

Friday, 7 June 2013

How does a rover on Mars take a selfie?

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Doesn't this picture look like Curiosity is posing? It looks like someone is standing there taking a picture of it on Mars.  But there's no one else there. No wonder the conspiracy theory folks still have stuff to write about, the whole mission must be done from a secret studio in Area 51!

It actually takes a lot of work to generate this image.  It is really a mosaic of a dozen or so pictures, stitched together to come up with this illusion of a posed selfie.

Curiosity is well into its minimum 2-year mission on the planet Mars, looking for evidence that Mars has had, in its history, habitable zones.  These are areas under rocks, in fissures, or in ancient streams where liquid water would have existed and life, probably in the form of bacteria, could have thrived.  On Earth, pretty much anywhere there is liquid water and a source of energy, there is life.  Why would it be any different on Mars?

Curiosity has a number of cameras on board.  These cameras help it navigate, take super close-ups of rocks, take big panorama shots, and the cameras even help it aim its laser for science experiments.  One of these cameras is on the end of its robotic arm, and that's the one that snapped a number of images that were stitched together to form this picture.

But why can't we see the robot arm holding the camera?  That's where the Hollywood-style image manipulation comes in.  The arm and its wrist can take shots from different angles, enough angles so that it can be "erased" out of the component images but still have enough information left to stitch together an image of the rover without the arm in it.  In fact, this most recent mosaic was updated in May to include two drill-holes in the lower left quadrant that were not there when the first version of the selfie was published by NASA, 3 months earlier.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Top question asked of me: What university should I go to?

This one is for those of you in high school or CEGEP.  For many years I have been talking to students about careers in the space sector.  There is one question asked more than any other:  Where should I go to university if I want to work in the space sector?

It takes all kinds of backgrounds to make a space program run, not only science and engineering.  Everyone can participate in space exploration and development in industry, in academia, and in government.  We need lawyers, economists, accountants, managers, medical doctors, business experts, investors, even authors and artists.  Whatever you like to do, you can participate in space activities.  The engine of research in space is in the academic sector.  The business sector is great a bridging that research with space missions and making the links to opportunities all over the world.  The business sector is also starting to take the lead in some areas where the government sector was the only real player in the past.  The government sector collaborates with other space agencies from around the world and with other government partners to meet national needs.

In a competitive world, you need to do well in your studies.  It is much easier to do well if you actually enjoy what you are studying.  So my advice is always to do what you like, work hard, do well, and work on applying what you have learned to the space world.

My advice about choosing a university is different for undergraduate or graduate studies.  I will stick to undergraduate studies for this blog post.  Also, this advice is really for Canadian students who want to work in the space sector, since this is what I know best.

For undergraduate studies, choose a university by applying these criteria, in this order:

  1. The university offers an undergraduate program in a field that you LIKE.
  2. The university offers a co-op program in that field (work/study program, not all subjects have co-op available).
  3. The university offers the lifestyle you are looking for (ie. close to home vs. far from home, big city vs. rural).
  4. If you still have more than one university on your list at this point, go with your gut with the more intangibles (smaller/larger school, sports teams, extracurricular clubs, etc.).

Ignore those ranked lists in popular magazines about which is the "better" university.  For undergraduate programs, there are no bad universities in Canada.  Don't let yourself be pressured into a specific discipline by your family or by your peers if it's not what you like to study - you're the one who has to do all the work.

There are a few universities out there with specialised space-related undergraduate degrees, like Western and Carleton.  If you already know that that field is what you really like, your decision is made at step 1 above!  My point is, though, that you do not have to do a specialised degree to work in the space sector.

When you are done your undergraduate program, consider adding the International Space University to your CV - it will open a lot of doors for you.

Go ahead and comment below - I'd love to hear what you think.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

How can an asteroid have its own moon?

I got this good question on Twitter from @MrJoshArless.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 is in our neighbourhood.  It swung by yesterday afternoon and it's on its way back out, in its own orbit around the Sun.  It'll be back, since we are all orbiting around the same Sun.  This used to happen a lot more often in the early Solar System, as you can tell just by looking up at our Moon on any clear night, and looking at all the craters from impacts in the past.  Planets like ours were formed by rocks just like 1998 QE2 coming together and forming bigger  and bigger rocks, until these bigger rocks were massive enough to pull in more rocks, and eventually form planets.

As I answered @MrJoshArless on twitter, any two masses are attracted to each other, and it's even possible that this moon of this asteroid is just a piece of the asteroid itself, locked in an orbit around it because of the attraction of the masses, just like our Moon is to Earth.  In fact, many people think that our Moon is made up of pieces of early Earth that have come together after a cataclysmic event.

NEOSsat is a recently-launched Canadian satellite whose task it is to search for asteroids and catalogue them, especially those that have an orbit around the Sun smaller than that of Earth's.  It is hard to see these from the surface of the Earth because you need to look towards the Sun during the day to see them (most of the asteroids you see at night will have orbits around the Sun larger than that of Earth's).  Knowing how many are out there, classifying them, and understanding their orbits will go a long way to predicting how many more 1998 QE2's are out there.

These asteroids are remnants of the early Solar System, they are hugely interesting from a scientific perspective because they can tell us about the building blocks of our own planet and of the other planets.  They have been "frozen" in time, they are just as they were billions of years ago when our planet was in its infancy; a very different place than it is today.  Some of these asteroids can even have organic molecules on them, including the building blocks of life.  Everything that is on Earth today came from asteroids and comets some time in the past.  Canada is actually participating in the OSIRIS-REx robotic mission to an asteroid to bring back a piece of an asteroid to Earth, to study a "fresh" sample.  You can also learn a lot by studying meteorites that fall to Earth, but they are sometimes changed by the atmospheric entry process, by being contaminated by the pile of dog poop it lands on, or just by handling by humans.

Some asteroids can even be rich in what we consider precious materials here on Earth.  That's why some people have an eye on mining them for their materials.  What if a rare material here all of a sudden became abundantly available?  A resource can only be considered a resource if one can sell it for more than it costs to get it.  Can you actually make money mining an asteroid?  Some people think so and are moving ahead with efforts such as Planetary Resources to do exactly that.

Super cool stuff.  Thanks for the question, @MrJoshArless, and keep them coming.