Thursday, March 28, 2013

Discoveries Pave the Way for Progress

Discovery should never be hindered; discovery allows children to learn about the world around them, discovery breaks through barriers to knowledge and understanding, and discovery imparts a numinous consideration of the cosmos upon us slightly-evolved, somewhat-intelligent human-apes.  Discovery paves the way for progress, and without discovery such progress is hindered.

I love that the relatively low-cost space missions run through NASA's Planetary Science Division are called Discovery Missions.  These missions usually have one scientist as a PI as well as a large project team and are capped by NASA at costing at most $425 million.  Discovery Missions have included NEAR, Mars Pathfinder, Lunar Prospector, Stardust, Genesis, CONTOUR (the only one that was not successful), MESSENGER, Deep Impact, Dawn, Kepler, GRAIL, and the recently announced InSight.  The missions were initially intended for one new mission to be launched every 24 months, but due to the lack of funding for NASA from the American public, the missions were reduced to launching every 50 months.

I call these Discovery Missions "relatively low-cost" since they cost less than New Frontiers Missions (up to $1 billion and launching every 7 years) and the Flagship Missions (over $1.5 billion and launching just once every decade).  Obviously $425 million might not seem very "low-cost", but compared to other large-scale science missions it's not too bad (and compared to the cost of just about any military operations it's ridiculously cheap).  It's too bad that we're not funding more Discovery Missions.  These missions have the potential to yield great jumps in our knowledge of space and science.

The recent years of space exploration and the rise of commercial space operations makes me wonder if it may become cheaper and more cost-effective in the near future to operate Discovery Missions.  If we can entrust launches to the lowest, reliable bidder (as opposed to the highest bidders as we seem to have in the past) and we can start building missions with some "off the shelf" components instead of creating everything from scratch, it seems like the utilization of Discovery Missions may allow for great advances in further exploration.  Of course, the larger missions are pretty awesome and I'd love to see more of those as well, but they are truly more expensive in time and resources.  I would love to see us get to the point when we could launch two or three Discovery Missions every 18 to 24 months.  I think taking many such small jumps in discovery of the cosmos beyond our Earth could do much to further public support for space exploration.  Imagine if Discovery Missions were each developed with outreach in mind such that each mission carried along the signatures of children, were monitored by elementary schools, were fully invested in social networking, and maybe even sought to include high-school students as interns to aid in development and mission operations.  The large-scale missions give huge leaps and bounds in discovery, but it's the small Discovery Missions that continue to pave the way for the progress of the large missions.

For more info on Discovery Missions, check out the website from NASA:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Europa Clipper

In this quarter's issue of The Planetary Report from the Planetary Society, an article entitled "Turning the Tides: Setting Sail with the Europa Clipper" (written by Alyssa Rhoden and Bob Pappalardo) caught my attention.  I hadn't previously heard of the potential for this new spacecraft and mission to the outer solar system.  The Europa Clipper mission is currently a concept which is being considered by NASA as one of our next ventures into the outer solar system.

(Artist's concept of the Europa Clipper.  NASA)

The Europa Clipper is proposed as an orbiter which would not be put into direct orbit of Europa, but would rather orbit Jupiter with the intentions of many close fly-bys of Europa.  The mission could see as many as 32 fly-bys to within 100 km of the icy surface of the little ice moon.  Such a mission could provide us with a great wealth of information about the surface and sub-surface characteristics of Europa, perhaps even revealing the nature of sub-surface "plumbing" of water channels and veins and shallow, sub-surface lakes as well as giving us much needed information concerning the existence and proportions of the Europan sub-surface ocean.  The Europa Clipper has technically been in consideration since the late 1990's, but this more recent rendition of the concept that I've been reading about appears to be far more well developed (probably thanks to the Galileo and Cassini missions to the Jovian and Saturnian systems, respectively, as well as better overall development of space exploration technologies over the years).

As currently proposed, the mission would cost something in the range of $2 billion, which is far less than we would be paying for a mission which put an orbiter directly in orbit of Europa itself (the mechanics of trading from Jupiter orbit to Europa orbit would require far greater development of mission architecture for that purpose; such developments cost more and also may take away from the funding that can be put into science payloads.  Even though I would love to see an orbiter which is directly in orbit of Europa, the current and likely upcoming economics situations in the world make this far less likely to happen).

(Europa and the Bull, Asteas, Paestan circa 340 BCE)

I find the concept of the Europa Clipper mission to be highly valuable for space science, not just because of the fact that research regarding sulfur compounds on the surface of the icy moon is directly related to my personal graduate research but also because Europa is one of the few places in our solar system which we should rightfully examine for its potential for the existence of past or present life - so that we may learn more about ourselves, about life in the universe, and about the origins and evolution of life.  I for one will be closely following the development of this concept and I really hope to see the mission coming to further development and perhaps even becoming a full-fledged mission in the coming years.

Here are some links to more info regarding the Europa Clipper:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Oh Smeg

Well, the week has come to an end.  My P. Chem. II exam went super well (impressive considering how much work is necessary on the part of a student when the instructor is terrible at their job) and my students in Geochemistry are taking their exam right now.  Now I have one full week of spring break to focus on my research and get a lot of lab work done and then I head to the synchrotron for a week.

I recently started watching Red Dwarf again.  I love this show.  It's campy and goofy and just the thing I like to have on while I'm crunching data.  I wonder what it would be like to be lost in the depths of space as the only human survivor on a large spacecraft.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Profoundness of Being Happy

Here is a fantastic TED talk from Shawn Achor that I watched this morning.  The talk considers the potential of happiness in finding success and the field of positive psychology.  Give it a watch!

Not only did I find Achor to be a fantastic speaker (he was funny and forward and, even though he spoke fast, he was articulate and apparently sincere in his delivery) but his talk was also highly motivational and rewarding to watch.  With all of the change occurring in my life right now, I'm finding myself becoming overrun with my work.  Perhaps I need to center myself and focus more on happiness in my work to succeed in getting things done.  No time like today to make the changes you need to make tomorrow fantastic!

Monday, March 18, 2013

I made this on a meme generator when I was creating the review for my students for the exam they have this week.  I wonder how long it will be before the cultural references I know by heart are far removed from those of the younger generations.

Spring Break is Nigh

One more full week of classes before spring break!  Awesome.  All the teaching and coursework has been much too much in my way when it comes to getting lab work done.  I get one full week of spring break to focus on my work before I head to the synchrotron for some sulfur microprobe mapping of my thin sections and hopefully spot XANES of those Borup materials.  I'm hoping this week to get through voltammetry of several sulfides and re-analysis of my sulfur XANES data from the last two years so that I can get a bit ahead of myself before I head to the synchrotron.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New thin sections to be prepared for x-ray analyses

Well, some good news finally.  Not only has Paul, our rock shop master, recently managed to finish my thin section mounts of grains from Borup for x-ray spectroscopy next month, but we're going to be able to get a few more prepped as well!  Trying a few different things now.  This time, we're trying some circular epoxy mounts of large chunks (several mm in size) as well as some simple drops of sample which I'll be making into a paste and then dropping onto a slide.  I don't know how commissioning on beamline 14-3 at the synchrotron at SSRL is going to go, but at least I'll have several samples to study while I'm there.  This could be a nice jump forward with the current research.  That would be pretty nice right now, since I've been feeling a bit stuck.  As of right now I have to wait until next summer (2014) before I can get up to Borup for some field work.  That leaves a lot of time in between to work on stuff in the lab, but I still haven't refined my objectives and current lab projects enough to properly prioritize them.  Oh well, no time like the present to look forward at what I can do to make the work more effective.  These new grain mounts and thin sections should be pretty helpful with that.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Week Ahead - Luminosity, The Big Crunch, and Crossfit

Well, this should be a fairly busy week I have ahead of myself.  I'm hitting a bit of a wall right now at work; I'm finding myself overwhelmed with tasks to the point where I can't make the important ones the priority.

I'll be giving three lectures for our geochem class this week.  That should be fun.  The students are covering mineral stability diagrams and fluid evolution in closed systems.  That's taking a good bit of time.

I still have that crappy P. Chem. course that I'm taking which requires far more work than I really wish to put into it right now.  That's taking a good bit of time.

My lab work is falling behind.  Teaching and taking classes makes it so hard to get solid straight blocks of time with which to focus on my lab work and my research.  I head to SSRL to do some x-ray work in a few weeks and I'm barely prepped.  Ergh, there is a crunch time in my future and I see it coming.

On a positive note, my Luminosity brain training is going very well.  I always enjoyed mentally stimulating games as a kid.  I still like to do puzzles and work my mind, but I feel like Luminosity kind of forces me to get a bit done each day.  Luckily, that doesn't take too much of my time away (although I have found myself playing one of their word building games in my free time a little too much these past few days!).

Crossfit was awesome last week.  The Crossfit Games Open has started.  I managed to get 124 reps out.  40 burpees, 30 snatches with 75 lbs, 30 burpees, and 24 snatches with 135 lbs.  Those last few snatches were destructive, but fun in the long run.  Not sure what the workout will be for the open this week, but I'm getting pumped to give it a go!

Hopefully, I'll manage to find some balance here in my life to make sure I'm getting my exercise, mental training, courses, teaching, research, reading, and home life all worked out in a way that allows for them all to have some amount of my time.  I'm excited for the end of my P. Chem. class, as that is the one time killer that really isn't much worth my time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The land of the Bills and the Flops

For my next speech for my Toastmasters club (See You Speak Toastmasters), I will be giving a moral story speech from the advanced manual for storytelling.  It took me a while to decide what to write this speech about, but I had a bit of a Seussian inspiration (this week marked the 109th year since the birth of Dr. Seuss!) and so I decided to create a story about a realm that is slightly different than ours, but one that I could use to highlight some of the issues that I see currently plaguing our world.  I'm still in the process of writing this speech, but I think after I have the story down, I'll write a longer form of it (it only needs to be ~10 minutes for Toastmasters).  Once I have penned that longer form (well, I suppose typed is the better word to use, although I am writing the current version by hand) I will share it here on A Cosmobiologist's Dream!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How to Green the World's Deserts

Last night at Crossfit I squatted 315 lbs, pressed 155 lbs, and deadlifted 345 lbs.  Needless to say I was pretty crunched on energy when we got home.  We decided to have a tasty dinner while watching a TED talk and I stumbled upon the following talk by Allan Savory on his proposal for mitigation of our current troubles with rampant climate change.

If you watched the video then I'm sure you're as intrigued as I was.  Although I disagree with a lot of the language that Savory used (I think there are far more things that we can do to better manage the environment and make an impact on the recent jump in climate on this planet than just his one idea...), I did find his proposal worth consideration.  If we were to make changed to how we treat our animals by completely getting rid of factory farming and instead allowing large heards of grazing livestock to be shepherded across some of the arid rangelands in the western part of the U.S., maybe we could also start improving soil quality and reducing some of the CO2 in the atmosphere.  It would be great to see more vegetated lands in the American west.  I've traveled a good deal around Colorado and the adjoining states and I've seen a lot of arid rangeland which is protected, but for which we don't suppor the local ecosystems.  Although I would never be foolish enough to assume we could totally disrupt our human impact on atmospheric greenhouse gases just by simply improving the quality of rangelands (we need to focus on our attitudes and behaviors primarily), I do think that implementing Savory's plan on the large scale could actually improve our rangelands, allow for better living conditions for livestock (and thus much better meat for consumers), and might even give us some fairly immediate results with which to show legislators and the general public that our actions have an immediate impact on the world in which we live!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Week Ahead

It's definitely crunch time for me in the Templeton Lab.  Not that I necessarily have anything driving me (a cowboy with a ten-gallon hat and a bull whip running a six-horse wagon across the desert in search of a gold mine he'd heard told of just popped into my mind!), but I do feel the need to start getting more work done during the week to leave more time for play on the weekends.

This week I'm focusing on microscopy of all of my static cultures, voltammetry for sulfur and manganese species in water samples, and prepping for SSRL in a few weeks.  I have some sulfide gradient tube cultures I made late last year that need to be revisited to see if anything is still thriving within them.  I'm planning on trying to digest some of the agarose in some static cultures to isolate sulfur compounds for x-ray absorption spectroscopy.  I have no idea yet if that's going to be a path worth going down.

Voltammetry is still coming along for me.  I need to make more time for doing these analyses and for getting more data.  I'd like to be confident with analyzing waters for sulfide, sulfur, sulfate, and Mn(II) by the end of the week, but that might be a little ambitious.

When it comes to preparing samples for XANES analyses at SSRL, who knows where that will take me.  I have two thin sections of Borup material I took with me to Switzerland and I have four recently finished thin sections that I still need to analyze microscopically to see if they are any good.  I might try to prep two more thin sections to take to the beamline for commissioning the sulfur microprobe.  If this new beamline turns out good results, it will be nice to travel to SSRL more often and analyze Borup samples.  We'll see soon where that technique will take me.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

It's time for a coffee bath.  Not that I'm bathing in coffee, my life is just not quite that awesome yet.  But I will be taking my Star Trek mug full of coffee with me to a relaxing bath.  Lots of life to think about.
Did you hear oxygen went on a date with potassium? 

It went OK