University of Washington Astrobiology Program

Fall 2012

From JPL to MWO: A 2012 Astrobiology Workshop Report

In addition to their coursework and research rotation, another requirement that our students must complete in order to earn their dual-title PhD is to attend three UWAB workshops. These workshops are field-trip-based activities geared toward students' scientific and professional development. They typically last 2-3 days, are offered on an annual basis, and involve technical lectures and presentations from faculty members, as well as in-the-field research. This November 28-30, fourteen of our graduate students traveled to Pasadena, CA, to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), as well as the nearby Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO). The workshop was organized by Prof. Victoria Meadows, Nicole Evans, and Tina Swenson.

The goal of this workshop was to learn about spaceflight, how a NASA mission is brought from design to launch, and how these missions contribute to astrobiology. At JPL, the students visited the “Mars Yard”, where they got up close and personal with a near-clone of the Curiosity rover that is used to test commands here on Earth before they are sent to Curiosity on Mars. They also learned about how Curiosity's instruments may be used to search for signs of life on the Martian surface. Later, they saw what is involved in ongoing mission management at the Space Flight Operations Facility and the Spitzer Mission Support Area. At the Earth Science Center, they examined climate data from NASA's Earth Science missions. Finally, they visited a spectroscopy lab, where they learned about laboratory spectroscopy and how it supports remote sensing, allowing us to learn about planetary environments from far away. Between these activities, the students attended lectures and participated in open discussion with many JPL scientists. An additional focus to the workshop was exploring alternative careers for science PhDs, and meeting with scientists from various backgrounds helped the students gain a better understanding of non-academic career paths in astrobiology.

On the last day of the workshop, the group took a trip to Mount Wilson Observatory, where they toured the collection of telescopes, learning about the history and scientific significance of each one. This tour prompted a discussion of how astronomical observations are used to detect and characterize exoplanets, and allowed for a comparison of ground telescopes vs. the space telescope missions discussed at JPL.

Overall, the students reported that the 2012 workshop was both a fun and educational experience, and as such, a great success!

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Photos: (Top right) The group in front of the Curiosity double (From left to right, Back row: Rodrigo Luger, Matt Tilley; Middle row: Russell Deitrick, Aomawa Shields, Wayne Stewart, Megan Smith, Nicole Evans, Elena Amador, Vikki Meadows, Giada Arney, Jonathan Bapst, Osa Igbinosun, Jeff Bowman; Front row: Benjamin Vega-Westhoff, Anna Simpson. (Middle left) Russell Deitrick explores satellite data at the Earth Science center, (Bottom right) The group gathers beneath MWO's 100-inch telescope.

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