Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Each according to his gifts: Analogues, A Canadian Contribution

This beautiful image taken by U of T's Tim Barfoot shows the ROC-6 Rover that will be used to simulate a Lunar Rover this summer as part of an Analogue Mission. It is shown here at one of the CSA's 10 Analogue Sites: Lake Orbiter, Devon Island.

How can Canada best contribute to Planetary Science and the development of Space Missions? Should we launch our own superior spacecraft? Develop our own cadre of scintilating supporting scientists? Engineer the finest quality instruments? Well, we do currently do all of these things. But while we do posess high quality in each domain and make valuable contributions to missions, it is unlikely that we will become the largest source of either.

However, there is one domain in which we have a distinct advantage. Ours is a large country with many different environments. These provide excellent places to check-out landed spacecraft equipment and develop techniques to command them. If this testing is done in what we call a "flight-like" manner (that is to say that we force upon ourselves the constraints which would exist were the mission actually occuring on another planet) then we have a special name for the exercise: an Analog Mission.

Such a Mission should have all the necessary simulated pieces in place to mirror an actual mission. These include a realistic instrument platform (i.e. a lander, rover or other spacecraft simulator), realistic instrumentation, realistic communications and a remote mission operations team which works on a schedule that is itself suitably "flight-like."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Martian Fog Update

Disney's vision of a plant on Mars via Paleo-Future. I can only hope that I'm growing the Martian version of our tree of knowledge.

By design, one of the main jobs of a Scientist is to add to our body of knowledge. Typically, we're all working away quietly on this tiny piece or another of a very large tree. Often, the particular leaf that we are adding is esoteric and may therefore be of interest only to a small group or even just ourselves. But sometimes, we get the chance to work on a finely-filigreed golden leaf of a project, or on a major branch. It is on those projects that a wider swath of the world takes note.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Space & Politics in Canada: Fallout from the 41st General Election

I, like many others, watched a generational sea-change in the politics of Canada last night. As Maclean's Magazine's Colby Cosh aptly put it this morning "Four Parties enter, Two Parties leave." The leftmost of the mainstream parties, the NDP saw huge gains in an "orange wave," bringing them up to official opposition status with 102 seats in the house of commons, more than double their previous high of 43. Meanwhile, the Liberal party - above 50% in popular vote and dynastically described as Canada's "Natural Governing Party" just ten short years ago - fell to third place for the first time in 144 years. But for those of us involved with space the real story is that after a 5-year test drive of conservative minority governments, the electorate has handed over the keys of the country to the Conservatives with a majority likely to last at least until 2015.

Monday, May 2, 2011

LPSC Notebook: A Special Note on Risk Mitigation

In my experience, no federal agency is better at marketing and public relations than is NASA. They have to be. Unlike most of the other divisions of the government, NASA survives on its ability to inspire the nation and to involve them in the exciting work that it does. And while everyone can see the economic sense of keeping air travel safe, building roads and protecting the border, NASA is something of a luxury that a rich country can afford as an investment in its future. If people stop believing in what NASA is doing and supporting it, the agency will disappear or at least contract down to its directly justifiable parts.

How does such an organization deal with risk? Unfortunately, not very well. This is particularly true when it comes to human space flight. This has always been a risky business. Eight astronauts died in the lead-up to the moon landing, all on training missions. It was a different time, with higher stakes and these losses were accepted. The astronauts themselves were test pilots and it was widely known that they understood the risks and took them in stride.

But by the 1980s, I think the agency made a fundamental mistake by changing course and attempting to appeal to taxpayers on a more mundane level. The pre-Challenger posters are still up in some places around the country, describing a shuttle flight as "Going to work in space." Moving the bar like that means that when a fatality happens, it isn't just a tragedy, it is an outrage*.

Knowledge of that kind of a response means that space systems designed today are much more risk-averse than were systems designed back in the 1960s. In many ways that is a good thing, but it also adds enormously to the cost of these systems. There's a reason that repeating Apollo with a return to the moon is economically beyond the ability of NASA to complete within a decade, despite the fact that we have much more knowledge and much better technology than was available in 1961.