Sunday, December 13, 2009

Planetary Scientist, now at York University

So, I can now confirm that I have joined York University in the department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering. I have now been working for Jim Whiteway for almost two weeks on the water cycle of the Martian Arctic.

I've got to say, it feels good to be back working in Planetary Science. This topic in particular is of great interest to me, as my PhD dissertation subject was also the martian arctic, specifically, how the sun interacts with ice and dust there to provide places where organic molecules or even life could persist, and the larger problem of determining how much water is available. This is a big problem, as water is a key component for life as we know it.

However, the interactions of water vapor and the martian surface are strange from the perspective of the terrestrial climate scientist. Clouds forming close to the surface have many characteristics of cirrus clouds on the earth, as seen by Lidar analysis. But they look for all the world like convective cells:

Animate This Image to see martian clouds forming by condensing onto rising dust!

[Animation created by the author from images taken by the Surface Stereo Imager on sol 112 of the Phoenix Mision. Credit: JPL/NASA/Texas A&M University/University of Arizona. The image contains information from both the blue and red filters and has been enhanced, hence the stretched colour]

The regolith is also so dry that it sops up water like a sponge and inhibits the movement of vapor. This effectively cuts off the interaction between the atmospheric water vapor and the ice table, just a few centimeters below the surface.

Do all these inputs come together to form a habitable environment? And what do the results of the Phoenix mission have to say about the amount of water stored below the surface? This information is critical for any future mission to Mars, especially any manned mission.

I've got a year to find out, as my contract runs until December 2010. We're going to run some numeric simulations, do some lab experiments and maybe even visit a Mars Analogue site. With a little luck I'll have some interesting stuff to share with you all here and next year at DPS or AGU!

It's good to be back!

* Note, if you liked the animation above, drop by my website, for a look at all the animations of the atmosphere taken with the SSI over the course of the Phoenix Mission looking straight up (Zenith) or outwards, just above the horizon (SupraHorizon). You can see the falling snow, along with several different types of cloud, and interesting billows of dust. Happy hunting!