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On Being Selected as an LROC Participating Scientist

On Being Selected as an LROC Participating Scientist
This image shows a 2007 conceptual design for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). (Image credit: NASA)

I?ve alwaysbeen interested in science. The SETI Institute hosts summer interns in theirResearch Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is very similar toone I attended 12 years ago where I had my first experience working withspacecraft. Who would have dreamed what was to come?.

In March2008, I was selected by NASA to join the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter CameraScience Team as a Participating Scientist. What is that, you may ask? The LunarReconnaissance Orbiter (LRO, a spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2009. It represents the first in aseries of lunar spacecraft, and a return to lunar exploration by NASA.

LRO carriesa suite of modern instruments for surveying the Moon for two primary purposes:(1) to measure and characterize the lunar surface and environment for futurelanded exploration missions, both robotic and crewed by humans, and (2) toexplore the lunar surface for basic scientific purposes.? Of course, these twothemes are closely intertwined, one working off the other.? Our spacecraft willcarry instruments for characterizing the global lunar radiation environment(CRaTER), measuring the thermal characteristics of the lunar surface (DIVINER),identifying water-ice deposits via spectroscopy (LAMP) and neutron detection(LEND), accurately measuring the topographic and geodetic shape of the Moon(LOLA), and imaging the surface of the Moon for landing site certification andpolar illumination (LROC).'

That's whatthe spacecraft is; what's a Participating Scientist? There are several ways forscientists to get involved with NASA spacecraft missions.? One way is to bepart of the team that proposed, and then won, the selection for a particularinstrument on board a spacecraft.? Those scientists form the core group of thatinstrument's science team.? NASA recognizes this selection process oftenresults in minimum science teams. In order to fill out the ranks of spacecraftscience teams to include extra fields of expertise or provide forinterdisciplinary studies, NASA puts out a call for Participating Scientistsfor the mission.

I and manyothers wrote proposals outlining how we could help the mission in variousways.? The idea behind these proposals is to show how you can not only provideadditional scientific expertise that the science team might need in theiranalysis of the data, but also how you can contribute to the operations of theinstrument, and increase the scientific return of the mission.? These proposalsare carefully evaluated by a review panel of scientists, and the best proposalsare selected.

One of myareas of interest in planetary sciences can be summarized as "what is thesurface like?"? I use a technique called photoclinometry or shape-from-shadingto help determine what the pixel-scale roughness of a surface is from a singleimage.? Understanding the roughness characteristics of a surface can be appliedto a number of scientific applications, but is also distinctly useful in theearly stages of a landing site selection process to quickly evaluate sites andreject those that are too rough for a particular landing system. I applied thistechnique for the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) launched in 2003, and amworking on applying it to potential landing sites for the Mars ScienceLaboratory (MSL) rover to be launched next year.? The narrow-angle LROC camerawill have a resolution on the surface of 50 cm/pixel.? Applying my technique tothese images will result in roughness information on length scales of a meteror less, which is about the size that robotic and human landers and rovers careabout.

There arealso techniques for doing more than just obtaining surface roughnessstatistics.? We can take two or more images of a location on the surface anduse those images to build a digital terrain model (similar to the way that youreyes create a 3D model of the area around you in your head by observing thesame scene from two different angles). We'll be able to build digital terrainmodels with mesh resolutions similar to the camera resolutions, and will beable to create virtual models of places on the Moon at person-sized scales.These kinds of data products have use for exploration applications, but arealso a way to start doing the kinds of geology work that terrestrial geologistsdo on the Earth with only our high-resolution orbital imagery of the Moon.

I, andother members of the LROC science team, will use these techniques to testvarious scientific hypotheses about cratering processes, lunar volcanism andteconism, and a whole lot of other things.

However,that is after we launch.? In the meantime I'm involved in helping the team asthe cameras are built, tested, and calibrated. We've got a lot of operationssoftware that needs to be tested and ready, and we've got to populate ourtarget database so that once we're in orbit, we're taking pictures of areasthat are relevant to LRO's scientific and exploration goals.? We're alsoworking on the processes for how we'll archive the data and make it availableto the public as soon as we can after having taken it.? We've got a lot ofpreparation to do before we launch later this year, and that is exactly why theParticipating Scientists were chosen -- to add our expertise and experience tothe process of getting our instruments delivered to the launch pad and thenoperational once we're in orbit, as well as contributing to the great sciencethat is sure to result from our return to the Moon.

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