The Great Instron Migration

The last few months have seen an almost unbelievable brightening in the light at the end of my PhD tunnel. Why? WE MOVED A MACHINE.

Yep. And you thought I was going to explain some insanely cool data I’d collected.

The triumph this month was relocating our Instron apparatus (which I highlighted in a recent post) to our new and improved Ice Lab. It’s something I’ve relentlessly coordinated (= was an interminable squeaky wheel to the people with the means and power to actually make this happen) over the last few years, and at times it seemed like the Instron would remain in purgatory across the street. First, we needed a place to put it. Then a lab space opened up, but we had to wait almost a year for the outgoing professor to take all of his equipment off to his new job (to be fair to him, though, he did let me use his lab equipment while it was still around).  The room needed a paint job, deep cleaning, and a new power outlet to accept the machine. Finally, at the beginning of my fourth year at Brown, the Instron began its journey.

In other words, instant activation of Mother Hen Mode occurred as the means of accomplishing my PhD research rose into the air, balancing on a 4×4 on a forklift.

First motion of the Instron!

First motion of the Instron!

What surprised – and scared – me was that the forklift/4×4 combo was lifting the machine by its crosshead (the big, tan bar at the top). Nobody had discussed the fact that the clamps holding that crosshead onto the machine, which were now supporting the entire weight of the machine, were meant to resist only the force of the machine itself pushing on a test specimen. Would they now hold up the entire 1,200 lbs of very expensive apparatus? I didn’t know, nobody had checked in advance, and the legs of the Instron were gently swaying with every turn of the forklift. It was too late now! I closed my eyes, then turned away to find something to distract me while the forklift driver expertly navigated a maze of equipment between our machine and the exit.

I let out a huge sigh of relief when those legs once again met the ground outside. Thank you, Instron, for designing good clamps!

From there, a few “simple” steps got the Instron across the street and into our nice, new lab.

Step 1: Tip the machine on its side.


Step 2: Drive it onto a truck.


Step 3: Drive it from the truck onto the loading dock at GeoChem.


The conversation here went like this:

Rigger: “Are you sure those loading dock plates can support the weight of the forklift?”

Bill (guy in the photo): “Yeah, they’re 100 lbs of steel apiece.”

Forklift starts driving…

Bill: “Stop! Stop! The plates are bending!”

Fortunately, we were able to move the Instron onto a dolly and roll it into the loading bay without the forklift!

Step 4: Fit the Instron into…

a) the elevator


b) a tiny doorway into the lab.

20150921_100535     20150921_100651Fortunately, we tested this procedure in advance with an incredibly high-fidelity INSTRON SIMULATOR.

Instron Simulator

The extreme high-fidelity Instron simulator. Yes, I got to spend a day doing crafts! These are skills I learned while working at NASA.

At long last, the Instron is in the Ice Lab.


Now I can get started with the last phase of my research! You’ll be the first to know when that incredibly cool data comes out.

How Studying Geology Makes Me a Better Engineer

When I tell people that I decided to “leave engineering and become a geologist,” most of them respond with, “Wow, that’s different!”, or “That’s quite the change.” And initially, I thought the same thing. How much can building spacecraft and studying rocks overlap???

The years since beginning grad school have been eye-opening, to say the least.

As an engineering student I learned about materials; how to understand their limits and avoid them, so that I could design part of a machine, building, or spacecraft, secure in the knowledge that the item – whatever it was – wouldn’t fall apart. “How much load can you put on this steel beam before it bends? Divide that number by 2.5 and you’ve got your design limit.” Engineering is about avoiding breaking or bending, because when beams bend or a bolt breaks, your machine becomes useless at best and dangerous at worst.

Well, too bad for all the engineers: the Earth is CONSTANTLY BREAKING AND BENDING. Faults like the San Andreas are brittle fractures of the Earth. The Earth’s mantle is solid rock that is, at the same time, in constant, incredibly slow motion. So the study of geology is about understanding the limits of a different material – rock – and what happens after you go beyond them.

To that end, “we” (geologists and engineers) have spent unbelievable amounts of time coming up with carefully crafted machines – which need to avoid breaking – to squish the heck out of rocks – which we want to break or flow – and see what happens.

In my research, the rock in question is made up of a mineral called ice. Yes, ice is a rock!

To figure out what happens when ice is pushed beyond its limits, I had to apply my engineering background to designing an experimental apparatus that could a) keep my ice from melting, while b) measuring the extremely slow (you might even say “glacial!”) change of shape of the ice during my experiments. Geology provides the “design requirements,” which I then employ to make engineering decisions while designing the machine. The process has challenged my engineering skills and pushed me to develop better understanding of aspects of engineering – such as measurement system design – which I had little experience in.

The result? A machine originally designed for engineering tests, now outfitted with a cooling chamber that goes down to -100 degrees C and a sensor system capable of measuring position changes as small as 0.000000001 meters.

It looks like this:

Cryostat Detail

So despite most peoples’ first impressions, geology and engineering have a lot in common. In the process of using my geologic knowledge to define expectations for a machine, then using my engineering background to design, fabricate, and integrate the apparatus, I’ve merged two seemingly disparate fields and become better at both… meaning that my new job title is really “engineer and geologist,” rather than “engineer-turned-geologist.”

Geologists and Engineers Head North to Find… Ice!

There are a lot of people who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about ice. One of those people is my friend, Dr. Rachel Obbard, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and an expert on the microscopic features of ice. Right now she’s bundled up in Barrow, Alaska with a team of fellow scientists and engineers, hunting for the perfect sea ice to take back to her microscope.

Rachel and her team are keeping an excellent blog about their adventures. Click on over to The ICE-MITT Project to follow along with their science mission, learn about the unique challenges posed by  field research on ice (polar bears included!), and see what sorts of crazy antics they get up to on their snowmobiles.

Drama on the Space Station! Follow Along from Mission Control

The International Space Station has been in the news today due to a (probably false) ammonia leak. As a former flight controller, just thinking about an ammonia leak in the ISS gave me an adrenaline rush. What does this mean, and why is it such a serious situation for the astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory? Read on!

You can also follow along with the action as if you were sitting in Mission Control. The NASA website ISS Live! streams real data from the International Space Station. Open it up in a separate tab, then keep reading – I’ll talk you through the signs of today’s action.

Once it’s open, click on “Live Data.” This page shows you the crew’s schedule and tells you a bit about what the astronauts are doing at any given moment. Of course, their schedules are completely messed up on a day like today!

Next, click on “Console Displays.” This brings up a spreadsheet-looking page with a bunch of crazy acronyms on it. Each of those acronyms is the call sign of a flight controller in Mission Control! You can spend a lot of time clicking around, learning about the different disciplines (most of the pages even have short PDF documents that explain the job of that flight controller in a bit more detail – and they’re written in plain English, not engineer-ese)! But for today, click on ETHOS: the flight controller who monitors the air, water, and cooling systems inside the ISS.

You’re now looking at a small subset of the data an actual ETHOS flight controller sees when they are sitting in the Mission Control Center.

ISS Live ETHOS screenshot

The data is laid out in a pattern similar to what the space station looks like if viewed from above (compare to the picture of the station below). In the center is the “Destiny Lab,” which is where a lot of the science is conducted on ISS. You’ll see the pressure in the station, temperature, composition of the air (partial pressure of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide), as well as whether the fans in the Lab are running. Similar information is given for the other core modules (which I can go into later, if you ask via a comment).

Now, a little background on today’s issue:

The ammonia on the ISS is part of the “External Thermal Control System”: NASA lingo for pipes filled with cold ammonia that take heat from inside the space station and move it outside, to two huge radiators which then cast off that heat into space. It’s something like the antifreeze in your car, which takes the heat from your engine and gets rid of it through your radiator. See the big, silver, rectangular panels sticking out the back of the space station in the photo below? Those are the radiators with ammonia flowing through them.

ISSOf course, ammonia is extremely poisonous to humans. Why would the Station use such a dangerous chemical for heat transport? It’s really good at it! It also doesn’t freeze at the extremely cold temperatures outside the Station.

The engineers who designed the ISS knew that it could be dangerous and went to extraordinary lengths to make the space station safe, but there’s always the (very, very small) possibility that the cooling system will leak and ammonia will enter the living area of the Space Station. The astronauts are trained to respond immediately to the slightest sign of a leak.  They drop what they are doing and get to the Russian Segment of the Space Station as fast as they can!

An ETHOS flight controller in Mission Control looks for a couple of different things when watching for an ammonia leak. As a NASA press release said this morning, one of the signs is a cabin pressure increase from the ammonia entering the air. You can keep an eye our for this, too, by checking the Pressure in the Destiny Lab and the Quest Airlock!

The Russian-built modules of the ISS do not use ammonia coolant. By sealing themselves into that part of the ISS, the astronauts are then safe from exposure to ammonia. That’s what the crew did this morning when the signs of an ammonia leak started.

While it’s starting to look like this was a false leak (perhaps a sensor gone bad inside the cooling system), flight controllers in Mission Control took action to help keep the crew safe. You can see this if you look at the ETHOS display again. The “coolant temperature” in the Harmony Node is very high (>33 degrees C as I write this). This is because flight controllers shut down the cooling loop, which would slow down a leak (if there were one). Without cooling, the temperature started rising!

You can also see this by going to Page 2 of the ETHOS displays (which, conveniently, also has a simple diagram of how the cooling system works inside the ISS). Look at the temperatures of the cooling loops – see how the temperature in the Lab is low, but the temperature in Harmony is high? The Lab temperature is normal. As the flight controllers in Mission Control get the Space Station back to normal, you’ll see the temperature in Harmony come back down – fast! Also look for the cabin fan in Harmony to come back on.

At this point, most of the high drama is over and it sounds like the crew will safely return to the rest of the Space Station soon. You can keep watching ISS Live! throughout the evening, looking for signs that life is getting back to normal in orbit. For now, I hope you enjoyed taking a look at a flight controller’s point of view!



Keeping Geology Alive: Interactive Science Lessons for Elementary School Students

Earlier this month, geologists from around the world convened in San Francisco, California, USA for the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. This conference is a yearly milestone for graduate students like myself, who often present a poster or talk to share their research.

AGU Poster hall


Just one of the AGU poster sessions – the posters in this room change daily for 5 days!

Preparing a poster or talk for AGU can be a bit stressful (though you will certainly hear experienced geologists joke, “What’s so stressful about seeing 25,000 of your friends?”), but this year I had the opportunity to do something fun in addition to presenting my research: I gave a 5 minute “popup talk” about a program here at Brown in which graduate students teach science lessons to second grade students at a local elementary school!

The talk, while fun to give, was a great opportunity to share the lesson plans and handouts associated with these lessons. If you are an educator, or even a student looking for an easy way to inspire kids with cool science activities, these are for you! The lesson plans use the Scientific Method as a foundation for learning, with simple experiments designed to teach second graders about basic science concepts through hands-on activities. They include a lesson plan for the teachers (or volunteers) as well as a “Science Notebook” handout for the students to fill out. While following the progression outlined in the Providence Public Schools curriculum, the lessons are also linked to the national Next Generation Science Standards, which connect science to other topics through crosscutting concepts in math and writing.

If you’re interested in using these lesson plans to teach science to kids, or if you’re simply looking for science activities to perform in the classroom, check out the lesson plan compilation available here.

The lesson plans include…




Phases of the Moon – made out of cookies!

Phases of Moon3

…and more. :)

Why Explore Icy Worlds?

With all the excitement over other people’s cool careers exploring space, my research has taken a back seat for a while (at least, in terms of blogging)! A recent NASA video, however, reminded me of its importance.

Why do we explore icy worlds?

These days, a planetary scientist can barely walk down the celestial street without tripping over a new planet. And why not? Our Solar System, one star among “billions and billions,” has eight (R.I.P., Pluto). According to a quick Google search, there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and our own Milky Way Galaxy (for example) has an estimated 300 billion stars. Simply multiplying that out gives 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe.

Holy moley Batman, that’s a lot of stars!

Even if only a fraction of those stars hosts planets, there are still going to be billions, if not trillions, of other worlds. Not all of those are going to be observable from Earth, but it’s no wonder planetary scientists actually sign up to get Tweets about new planets (yes, those are a thing)!

How is this relevant to icy worlds? Well, if you want to know  whether any of those planets could harbor life, you must further limit your search to planets in the “habitable zone.” Sometimes called the “Goldilocks zone,” this is the region around a star where the conditions are just right to support life; where the essentials – mainly, energy – are abundant enough to support organisms. And this is where icy worlds come in.

Scientists used to think that the main “ingredient for life” was a warm, wet surface; that organisms needed both liquid water and sunlight (an endless source of energy) to survive. We’ve since learned that life has an incredible ability to thrive in seemingly appalling environments, like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea.

Hydrothermal Vent_NOAA

A hydrothermal vent at a midocean ridge in the Northeast Pacific. The white and red organisms are tube worms living off of the energy from the vent! Scientists are studying the vent, called a “black smoker,” and you can see their instruments deployed around it. (Photo courtesy NOAA.)

This is the link to Europa. If life thrives at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, where there is no sunlight (the energy source is heat from the Earth’s interior), could life also thrive around a vent at the bottom of Europa’s ocean? This question has forced scientists to expand their ideas of the “habitable zone.”

Crucial to understanding the possibilities for life on Europa is knowing how (or even if) the liquid ocean has indeed been liquid since the birth of the Solar System. Tidal heating, the process I study in the lab, is one of the primary ways of generating heat within an icy moon and keeping that ocean liquid!

So in a way, the hunt for the physics of tidal dissipation is helping us understand the possibilities for life elsewhere in the Universe.


Women eXploring Space: Dr. Jenny Whitten, Planetary Geologist

The awesome space explorers featured so far have had a definite engineering theme to their work – probably because the author started out as an engineer! But, of course, space exploration involves much more than the design, construction, and control of the spacecraft themselves. Scientists decide which experiments will be conducted in the first place, and why, then conceptualize those experiments (in terms of the scientific method!) and interpret the data when it comes back from space. The latter segment of a mission can involve thousands of people around the world! Who looks at data coming back from space, and what do they study? Read on to find out.


Dr. Jenny Whitten takes a break from science in front of a volcano in Hawai’i.

What is your job title? How would you translate that title into everyday language?

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, working in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies in the National Air and Space Museum. My job involves researching different planetary bodies in our Solar System, from characterizing the composition of lava on the Moon to determining the age of the oldest surfaces on Mercury. I have recently started a research project to understand the radar properties of the surface of Venus, including some of the oldest and most deformed surfaces on that planet.

Is there a specific background, or training, required for your job?

In order to get my job as a postdoctoral fellow I had to earn a PhD. Mine was from a Geological Sciences Department, but planetary scientists come from a variety of different backgrounds, including physics, mathematics, chemistry, and geology. Graduate school provided me the proper training to do research in this field, including experience working with remote planetary datasets, doing analog field work (like studying volcanoes in Hawai’i), and learning how to plan planetary missions.

What sorts of projects do you work on in a given day? Of all of the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?

I am usually working on more than one project at any given time. The various projects that I have, and am continuing to, work on involve different types of data sets (from topography, to visible images, to surface mineralogical information) and different planets.

GeoFactMineralogy is the study of the minerals that make up rocks.

If rocks are like books, minerals are the words!

Mercury Messenger

The surface of Mercury, taken by the MESSENGER spacecraft. (Photo courtesy NASA Goddard.)

My PhD dissertation work focused on ancient volcanism on the Moon and Mercury, two airless planetary bodies with heavily cratered surfaces. In order to complete my dissertation work I would do any and all of these activities: download a data set and process it from an online data center, count the number of craters on a planetary surface (which can tell us how old a surface is), map a geologic deposit, or use computer models to determine the minerals on the surface of the Moon. I would also spend time reading scientific journal articles about a particular topic or looking at published geologic maps. The possibilities are endless. Now, with my new project on Venus, I am learning about radar data and what it can tell you about the properties of a planetary surface, like surface roughness and material density or composition. By the end of my post-doctorate work I will have completed a research project on each of the terrestrial planets!


The terrestrial, or rocky, planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars! (Figure courtesy Wikipedia.)

My favorite project was probably the very first project assigned to me in graduate school. I started graduate school not knowing a lot about planetary science and my advisor assigned me a project looking at the lunar Orientale basin using Moon Mineralogy Mapper data. The Orientale basin is a spectacular impact structure because it has not been completely filled with lava, like most of the other impact basins on the Moon, allowing you to see the basin rings. Having a project in such a geologically interesting location was one aspect that excited me about the project. The other was working with the Moon Mineralogy Mapper data set. This NASA instrument measured the reflected light off of the surface of the Moon and was able to provide information about the mineralogy of the surface deposits. This first project also provided me the opportunity to participate on an active science mission. Over the next several years I was involved in helping to calibrate Moon Mineralogy Mapper data and also used the data for research. Participating on an active mission was an outstanding opportunity to have as a graduate student, and it showed me what lies ahead if I wished to continue to pursue planetary geology as a career.

Orientale Compilation

The Orientale Impact Basin on the Moon, color coded by elevation data gathered by the LOLA instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The three rings formed when an object the size of Rhode Island smashed into the Moon!

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far? How did you overcome it?

I am an early career scientist, so I have not had any great challenges to overcome outside of graduate school, but in the biggest challenge that I have faced thus far would have to be writing my dissertation. The most important part about writing a dissertation is actually getting everything written down, and writing was something that I struggled to do throughout graduate school. Doing research was always the fun part–exploring a data set time and figuring out the best way to address a scientific question always excited me. Writing always took more work. In order to continuously write for almost 4 months I had to figure out a system that kept me motivated. Eventually I found that an accountability group worked the best for me, that, and rewarding myself when I completed a task or goal I set for myself, such as completing the introduction to one of my chapters.

When did you decide to pursue this career? Was there a specific moment, event, or person who inspired you?

I decided to pursue planetary geology during my last year as an undergraduate at William and Mary. When I started college I was “scienced-out”. I had just graduated from a science-focused high school program where I had to take at least 7 science classes over the course of 4 years. So in college I decided to pursue other interests because I could not take any more math or science. However, by my second year I had stumbled into geology, one of the sciences that I had not been exposed to as a high schooler. It captured my attention immediately and I was hooked. Then, a few years later I was sitting in a geomorphology class and my professor put up an image of a mass wasting event. He asked the class to describe the processes that we observed in the image. Then he asked, “What planet are you looking at?” That shocked me a little bit. We had all assumed it was a black and white picture of a landslide on Earth. Turns out we were looking at Mars (what?!). The geologic feature looked almost exactly the same on Earth and Mars! It never occurred to me that other planets in our Solar System were experiencing the same processes as we do on Earth. This one example from class revealed that I could study geology (a new passion of mine) and the terrestrial, or rocky, planets (a passion of mine leftover from high school). My last year of undergrad I took a planetary geology class which solidified my belief that this was a topic I wanted to pursue in graduate school (and beyond!).


Jenny with a mockup of the Mars Rover Curiosity, which is currently exploring the surface of the red planet. (Image courtesy Jenny Whitten.)

What do you think has been the most important event or mission in space exploration in the last 50 years?

The Apollo 11 mission that landed on the Moon. Not only did that manned mission inspire people to pursue science and engineering careers, but it paved the way for the other landed lunar missions. All combined, the Apollo mission brought back rock and soil samples that taught us many things about the geologic history and formation of the Earth-Moon system. For instance, the rocks collected at the Apollo landing sites were dated using isotopes; a method (using impact crater counting – mentioned earlier!) to determine surface ages on Mars, Mercury, and the icy satellites was developed from this age information.

The number of people inspired by the Apollo missions is equally important and lead to a rapid increase in the number of planets studied, each with their own unique engineering and scientific challenges. The Apollo missions to the Moon showed us that we can land people on other planetary bodies and has inspired us to try and get people to other planetary bodies, like Mars or an asteroid.

What do you predict will be the biggest accomplishment in space exploration in the next 50 years?

Hands down, landing a human on another planet. Humankind has landed on the Moon, but that was over 40 years ago and on our closest celestial neighbor. Landing people on another planet has many more complications than landing on the Moon. There are more medical, physiological, physical, engineering, and scientific hurdles to overcome when we travel further from Earth. People will have to spend several years traveling in space in order to reach (and return home from) another planet. Communications will be delayed because the planets are much further away compared to our own Moon. It would really be a remarkable feat to land humans on another planet and I hope we accomplish this sooner rather than later.

The success of the Rosetta mission, coming so close on the heels of the failures experienced by Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, has rekindled the debate over whether human or robotic exploration is most effective. Having worked with both, what would you say are the merits of each? The drawbacks? Do you think that one or the other is more “efficient”? 

The question about whether humans or robots are more effective at exploring a planetary surface is intimately related to the environment and location of that planetary surface. For manned missions NASA takes many precautions and gathers as much about that body as possible in order to fly safe missions. A good example of this is the Surveyor missions, sent to the Moon before the landed Apollo missions to measure the properties of the lunar regolith (dirt). When the astronauts landed on the Moon we had a good idea of the surface properties.

Apollo 12 Surveyor 3

Apollo 12 Mission Commander Pete Conrad investigates the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. (Photo courtesy NASA.)

Another advantage to the Moon is its proximity to Earth. It is far more cost effective to send a human to the Moon compared to Mars (even though we know a lot about the surface of the planet from orbital and rover missions). Landers/ rovers are able to withstand harsher environmental conditions compared to humans, things such as radiation, and there much less is at risk when sending them to planetary surfaces.

Things get tricky when we consider a planetary surface that has never been visited by landers/ rovers or humans, such as a comet. It is a little frustrating that after more than a decade of travel, the Philae lander bounced into a shadow, instead of landing in a sunlit area. If Philae were a human it would be able to right itself easily and quickly, and continue on with its mission. Reacting and synthesizing information quickly is an advantage of human exploration. Robots can only do what people have programmed them to do, so if something expected comes up the rover may not have the necessary tool (instrument or software) or mobility to make a measurement, but a human would be able to improvise in that kind of situation. I think both methods of exploration are necessary to continue moving forward and understanding better the planetary bodies in our Solar System.

If you could go to any one (but only one!) of the sites you’ve studied, which would you choose and why?

If I was able to go into space I would choose the Moon. It has a special place in my heart because it was the planetary body that ushered me into the field of planetary science with my first graduate research project studying Orientale basin. Of all the areas I studied on the Moon I think I would have to land in Orientale because of all the science I could do (and it would be a breathtaking landscape, being in the most well-preserved impact basin on the Moon). In Orientale I could sample outcrops from the different basin rings which would provide information about the crustal structure and also the timing of the impact event. There is also a large pyroclastic deposit in the southern portion of the basin (it looks like a giant dark ‘o’), several sinuous rilles (channels carved by lava flowing over the surface), and many different basalt flows. There are still many outstanding questions about volcanism and impact basin formation on the Moon and samples from Orientale would greatly improve our understanding of these processes.