Flinn Scholars

Somebody’s in Tucson has been stuck in the SOC way too long

October 9, 2008

By Flinn Foundation

Matt Hom with Neil de Grasse Tyson, host of NOVA scienceNow on PBS, at UA's Lunar Planetary Laboratory

We’re starting to understand why the Phoenix Mars Mission was only scheduled for three months of digging holes and making sand castles on the Red Planet. Now in their fifth month of mind-bending 24.66-hour days, even the most sedate scientists have gone loopy.

Here’s the latest list of names they’ve given pebbles and other random things:

  • Headless (a rock)
  • Galloping Hessian (a soil sample)
  • La Mancha (a trench)
  • Snow White (another trench)

Hmmm… we wonder if this endless work is affecting Matt Hom (’08) and Melissa Lamberton (’05), too. Anybody seen them around campus? Are they referring to their backpacks and iPods as Sancho Panza and Lightning McQueen?

If so, this article on the Scholars website might be the last record of them speaking coherently, before the sleep deprivation kicked in.

If you want even more, there’s a reflection from Matt on his experience as a mission documentarian below.

Reflections and Musings of a Phoenix Documentarian
by Matthew Hom

“Uh-oh, this doesn’t look good”
“What’s wrong? Did I make a mistake?”
“According to your data story, we’re in danger of losing some critical TEGA data. We have to inform the science lead immediately!”

Turning to my mentor, Selby Cull, the primary documentarian on NASA’s Phoenix Mission, I quickly noted our shared look of alarm. In addition to “documenting the evolution of the daily tactical planning process (geek speak for note taking),” our primary responsibility as documentarians involves tracking the data story – a survey of all the observations physically stored on the Phoenix lander. Due to constraints on the lander’s hardware, Phoenix is outfitted with a precious 116 MB of flash memory. Any data/observations not stored in flash at the end of each Martian sol (day) are at risk of autodeletion. Such was the case with the TEGA (Thermal Emission Gas Analyzer) data, a high tech spectroscopic scan. Capable of identifying chemical compounds, most notably organics, TEGA science observations are critical to identifying the possibility of Martian life signatures and achieving “mission success.”

Success is a nebulous term when undefined, especially in the field of science. Without a clear means of measuring progress, it is difficult to recognize and appreciate scientific developments. Long before the landing of the Phoenix spacecraft on May 25, 2008, the science team had been hard at work defining “mission success.” The upshot was an extensive “to-do” laundry list of observations and experiments. The data derived from such observations/experiments, like the aforementioned TEGA data, are critical to ongoing scientific investigations of Mars, particularly: 1) The viability of life in the Martian Arctic, 2) The history of water at the landing site of Phoenix, 3) The effects of polar dynamics on the Martian Atmosphere. Plausible hypotheses are difficult to pinpoint and formulate; answers are even more elusive.

As a Phoenix documentarian, I am witness to the entire scientific process. While there is no such thing as a typical Martian Sol, each day of work begins with a short kickoff meeting. The kickoff meeting provides a quick overview of the current sol’s plan, placing it within the context of the previous sol’s downlinked data. Provided that the status of the lander is healthy, the plan is approved and the scientists break into their respective theme groups and work until the mid-point meeting. By the time the midpoint meeting rolls around, data has usually begun downlinking from the Phoenix Lander via a series of coordinated Mars Orbiter satellite relay transmissions. This downlinked data is critical to the upcoming sol plan, which is traditionally reviewed and revised over the course of the midpoint meeting. Following the mid point meeting, the scientists and engineers part paths, to “End of Sol” and “Activity Planning Approval Meetings (APAM)” meetings respectively. During the “End of Sol” meetings, the scientists give presentations on the status of their work and provide each other with feedback. The strategic “upcoming sol planning” meeting follows on the heels of the “End of Sol” meeting and is subsequently followed by the “short term” and “long term” strategic planning meetings. In these forward-looking meetings, the scientists plan out future sols and prepare template plans for the tactically oriented engineers. Erstwhile, the engineers work diligently in APAM meetings to translate the requests of the scientific team into implementable bits of code for the Phoenix lander.

The evolution of the scientists’ strategic planning meetings into tactically viable plans requires an incredible amount of collaboration, cooperation, accommodation and logistical coordination. Success is contingent upon team members’ steadfast dedication and commitment to the mission, as well as each other. Operation of the Phoenix Mission is by no means an insular task, and made all the more impressive given the strenuous working conditions. Unlike Earth, which operates on a twenty-four hour rotation cycle, Martian days run roughly twenty-four hours and forty minutes. As such, the Phoenix team must operate long shifts on Mars time, while contending with the physical fatigue associated with constant fluctuations in sleep schedule.

Yet, despite the physically taxing demands of the job, the Phoenix team maintains an unrivaled sense of enthusiasm. The synergistic dynamics of the collective Phoenix team are a testament to the triumph of teamwork. Early on in the mission, the TEGA instrument suffered from a series of near crippling setbacks. A potentially fatal short was discovered in its electrical system, threatening to prematurely end Phoenix’s search for water and organic materials. As a result, NASA mandated that the TEGA team treat each experiment like its last, and directed that the next TEGA delivery sample consist of “icy material” imaged at the landing site. In response, the entire Phoenix team rallied behind the TEGA group. Across the board, scientific instrument teams ranging from the Wet Chemistry Lab (WCL), to the Robotic Arm (RA) and the Surface Stereo Imager (SSI) banded together to help TEGA. After conducting exhaustive collaborative analyses, the instrument teams successfully identified “icy-rich” potential sample sites for TEGA. With half the battle won, the robotic arm engineers were able to set about devising methods for acquiring and delivering the icy sample to TEGA.

The seemingly trivial TEGA sample acquisition and delivery ultimately caused more than its fair share of headaches. Multiple delivery attempts to TEGA were thwarted by the cohesive nature of the soil, which caused the sample to stick to the scoop of the robotic arm. With tension and blood pressures running at an all time high and time running out, the Phoenix team petitioned NASA to lift its ice directive. Although NASA relieved the Phoenix team of the directive, NASA requested that the next TEGA sample contain possible traces of ice, no matter how minimal. Admittedly a gamble on NASA’s part, the Phoenix team’s newfound flexibility ultimately paid off and the next TEGA delivery confirmed the presence of ice for the first time on Mars.

One of the most striking symbols from my time on the Phoenix Mission was a shirt imprinted with the saying, “If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” Science isn’t a rigidly linear process. On the contrary, science is a flexible dynamic and holistic process. Eureka moments are few and far between, sandwiched between moments of maddening monotony. Yet, there remains a constant undertone of excitement. The thrill of victory far outweighs the agony of defeat and keeps the Phoenix team coming back for more.

Unlike the pre-engineered laboratory experiments associated with high school or college, the experiments conducted by the Phoenix team lack predetermined outcomes. As stated by Peter H. Smith, the Phoenix principal investigator on the Phoenix Mission, “We’re excited because surprises are where discoveries come from.” Although the discovery of ice has been making waves in the news media, exciting discoveries are being made on other fronts as well, most notably the discovery of perchlorate. Whatever the results yield, this mission represents the cutting edge of science. The daring exploits of the Phoenix Mission will inspire future space missions and new generations of scientists and engineers.

Shortly after I began my job as a documentarian, Peter gave me the following words of advice “There is no such thing as dumb question. Don’t be afraid to go up to people and ask them what they’re doing.” His advice has proven to be true and I’ve learned a lot about Mars, science, and myself in the process. During my time as a Phoenix Documentarian, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the rudimentary basics of UNIX, meet the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, take pictures with world-renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, swap stories with an Aggie Stormchaser, and even calculate a few data stories along the way.

Ultimately, the data issues surrounding the critical TEGA data were resolved in a caucus among head scientists and engineers. Since then countless data stories have been calculated and numerous disasters have been successfully averted. The data-rich information downlinked daily from the Lander’s different instruments will take months, if not years to sift through. Although the primary phase of the mission is quickly coming to a close, the journey of the Phoenix Mars Mission team has only just begun. Extensive analyses will need to be conducted, research papers will need to be written, and future missions to Mars will need to be planned. As for me, my small part in the Phoenix Mission story will come to an end, as I begin my studies at the University of Arizona.

In many ways, the Phoenix Mars Mission represents several firsts. Phoenix is the first NASA Mars mission to be led by a public university. Phoenix is the first mission to scientifically prove the existence of water on a planet other than Earth. Phoenix is the first mission in NASA’s “Scout Program,” the next generation of space exploration; “Scout Missions” represent a shift of paradigm from big budget missions to smaller, lower -cost missions. On a less important note, Phoenix represents my first foray into the real world of science. My experience has been nothing short of incredible and I’m extremely grateful for the privilege of having been a part of this once in a lifetime mission. It’s been an honor to work alongside such dedicated teammates.