This month, NASA's aptly named "Curiosity" rover opened the scientific phase of its $2.5 billion, three-year exploration of Mars. Searching for evidence that the Red Planet might once have been conducive to life, Curiosity began scooping samples of Martian dirt into its payload of high-end instruments for chemical and mineralogical analysis.
But Curiosity isn't the only one getting the scoop on the Red Planet these days.
Back on Earth, Emily Lakdawalla dishes the dirt on Curiosity for the Planetary Society. Her blog, Snapshots from Space, is a go-to web resource for breaking news on the robotic exploration of space. As the society's senior editor and long-time social media maven, Lakdawalla has made a name for herself as one of the most respected bloggers following the Curiosity mission.
While she's at it, Lakdawalla pursues her own mission of curiosity. As she sees it, she and her fellow bloggers, Tweeters, podcasters, and app developers are playing a crucial role in spreading the awareness and interest in interplanetary exploration necessary for ongoing public investment. The new social media, she said, are powerful complements to traditional science education for engaging future generations in the wonders of space.
Emily Lakdawalla is one of the social networks’ top Martian bloggers.
As the U.S. faces diminishing public funding for future missions on the scale of Curiosity, Lakdawalla is concerned about the nation's ongoing leadership in space. As an active blogger since 2002, she sees great potential for the social networks to engage the public in the excitement, beauty — and value — of space. "The social networks penetrate our culture in a way that top-down teaching doesn't," she says.
Her followers include the scientists and engineers doing the work, teachers who are translating that information, space enthusiasts with their own views, and casual visitors with a random question. Anyone can take part, and the multidirectional conversation enriches the experience for everyone. Says Lakdawalla: "We're blurring the boundaries between experts and the public."
The blurring extends to professional boundaries between space researchers and engineers working in different facets of the field. The chase for grant funding and the academic silo effect can keep scientists from following events outside of their own narrow disciplines, but it's important for scientists to know what else is going on, she notes. "I see myself as the nexus of these networks," she says.
Images like this one of Curiousity on Mars can be seen on Lakdawalla’s Snapshots from Space. Image: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Emily Lakdawalla
The Technical Scoop
Curiosity's suite of ten measurement instruments includes cameras, spectrometers, remote and environmental sensors, and radiation detectors. With an advanced degree in planetary geology, Lakdawalla writes about these technologies with unique authority. "Previous missions were field geology missions to an extent, but it is Curiosity's main focus," she says. "No other planetary geologist is doing blogs about Curiosity."
When the whole point is to find signs of past life in rocks and dirt, that matters. She knows the critical importance of proper sample collection and handling to any analytical measurement. She is particularly impressed with the rover's robotic arm. Even bearing an 88-pound instrument turret, the arm has enough torque to pick up and carry small samples at odd angles with great precision. It also features a unique vibration system that keeps the sticky Martian soil from clumping as it moves through the sample transport system into its designated scientific instrument. These engineering improvements came directly from lessons learned in previous missions.
Lakdawalla reserves special praise for the "geniuses" who pulled Curiousity's numerous complex systems together into a mission worth more than the sum of its individual parts. "The real triumph of this project is systems engineering," she says. Another Planetary Society blogger, Daniel Limonadi, is the lead systems engineer for Curiosity's Surface Sampling and Science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has been posting detailed insider blogs since August.
This veteran practitioner of new media first heard the call of science through the "old" medium of television. Like many children of the 1980s, she grew up watching the animated adventures of giant super-robots like the Transformers and Voltron at the height of their popularity. "I learned to relate to robots at a young age," she says. Those relationships would lead her to the hard sciences and, specifically, geology. Her bachelor's degree is from Amherst College and her master's is from Brown University, and she packed extensive field research into her entire academic career. When she realized that her published research in her specialized field "would be read by maybe seven people," she began to think about ways to make a bigger impact.
Her epiphany came at Brown, when she discovered the campus had one of NASA's 13 Regional Planetary Image Facilities, a treasure trove of images and interplanetary mission data from a half century of exploration. "That's where I found that my calling was to share these stunning views of other worlds with a world unaware of their existence," she recalls.
As the daughter of a museum director, Lakdawalla says she naturally "fell into playing the role of curator." She soon found her way to the top of a growing community of avid amateur space imagers, who use heavy-duty computational techniques to process the raw digital data, correlate it precisely to the timeline of the mission in question, and apply creative tools such as Photoshop to beautify them. Lakdawalla's images, and others from the online community unmannedspaceflight.com, frequently adorn her blog pages and longer-form articles in print. "Having an image with a story of any kind multiplies its impact by at least a factor of two," she says.
"These members of the public are doing a great service to the space exploration community," she continues. "I think space agencies should take better advantage of the way these amateurs produce these beautiful images for the purposes of illustration to show what it would be like if you were actually standing there."
Michael MacRae is an independent writer.
We’re blurring the boundaries between experts and the public.
Emily Lakdawalla, senior editor at the Planetary Society
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