Interview with Keri Bean, the Martian Storm Chaser

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Ms. Keri Bean in the Mars Yard

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing member of NASA/JPL and graduate student of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, Keri Bean. If you do not know who Ms. Bean is, you have not been paying much attention to the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission. Pete Cashmore (aka @mashable) recently named Ms. Bean (@KeriOnMars) one of 15 Space Accounts Every Space Lover Should Follow. Keri is quite an impressive young lady. Academically, she majored in meteorology while earning two minors in math and earth science. If you were to look at her Texas A&M profile, you would see the projects she has worked on are impressive and numerous. And anyone who quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson in her wedding vows just has to be awesome. Our interview took place via email over the span of a few weeks so that Keri could respond at her leisure. After all, being a Swiss Army Knife scientist working on Mars-time can be very demanding work. In our conversation, we discussed among other things her diverse scientific background, how she came to study weather on another planet, and her future dream projects. Following the interview will be some useful links such as information about Curiosity’s mission. And now, my interview with Ms. Keri Bean, the Martian Storm Chaser:

Let’s get straight to it: What do you do?

Sol 61: Curiosity’s first scoop of Mars

The simple version is I play half engineer, half scientist. For the engineering side, I help take MastCam’s pictures. Using our planning software, I make sure all the notes for settings (focus, exposure, etc.) are correct. This also means coordinating with the scientist proposing the imaging to make sure the camera is actually helping their observations and achieving their objectives. I help the second shift of engineers understand the observations, since they write the sequences that are sent to the rover. If the second shift doesn’t understand the observation, it may not be right! On the scientist side, I’m in the environment theme group. This group takes care of all the science observations relating to the environment, so this includes atmospheric science/meteorology and things like radiation. On some days I’m the theme group lead, so I coordinate the group to come up with a set of observations for the day. This may be things like looking at the sky for clouds or taking wind, temperature and humidity data. On some days I’m what is called the “keeper of the plan” so I take the environment theme group’s observations and put them into our planning software. When I’m not busy with all that, I do research on dust devils, optical depth, cloud morphology, and star photometry.

To do your job, it sounds like you need to know a lot about a wide variety of fields – astronomy, meteorology, engineering, computer programming, elements of photography… Is this accurate? Am I leaving any fields out?

It is definitely interdisciplinary. I knew I would need a wide knowledge of different fields, so I’ve taken classes in geology, geophysics, oceanography, etc. I earned two minors, one in math and one in Earth sciences, on top of my bachelor’s in meteorology. I also volunteered on projects like deploying seismometers in Wyoming, working on Hubble Space Telescope data, and writing engineering proposals. I started taking programming classes in high school. I’ve had telescopes since I was a kid. I have had my own DSLR camera for years now. All of that has tremendously helped me over the years.

Does this multitude of disciplines under your belt set you apart from your colleagues, or are the other people with whom you work the scientist equivalents of Swiss Army Knives as well?

We’re pretty much all Swiss Army Knives. :) Of course everyone has their specialty, but everyone knows a little bit about everything. Everything interacts, so you need a basic understanding of everything else to help you understand your own specialty.

You mentioned two main aspects of your job – the engineering element and the science element. Do you enjoy working on one side more than the other? Are they apples and oranges? Two sides of the same coin?

I really enjoy the boundary of the two, which is where my job really lies. I have to understand the science to do the engineering and vice versa. I get just as much satisfaction taking a picture as I do analyzing it!

Your profile shows that, among other things, you worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. As Opportunity is still operational, do you split time between Curiosity and Opportunity or is Curiosity now your sole appointment?

I unfortunately never worked operations for MER. I was in the queue to be trained, but the operations meetings were always during classes which took priority. I do however work on data analysis with some Spirit imaging. Right now I solely work on Curiosity, but I’ve been working on Spirit image analysis for the last 3+ years. When I get back to Texas A&M in November, I’ll probably split to working on both about 50/50.

As you are returning to Texas A&M, can you explain the relationship to your university and your job? Where are you in your studies? Is Curiosity your job, an internship, or something else entirely?

I’m a master’s student at Texas A&M. As part of that, I’m employed by the university as a research assistant, so I essentially get paid to go to school and work on the mission. Being here at JPL is essentially the equivalent of me doing a fall semester internship. I arrived at JPL on August 1, and my last day here is November 6. I’m only here for the first 90 sols. I’ll graduate with my master’s in either May or August of next year.

How did you enter into all of this? Did atmospheric studies lead you to astronomy which led to engineering? Did you begin with astronomy and narrow your focus into planetary atmospheric studies? In other words, what’s your story?

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Top: Watching STS-114 launch; Bottom: Space Camp 2006, EVA work on Hubble

I’ve always had a passion for the weather, but I never knew specifically what I wanted to with it. As I grew up, I would change from hurricane hunter to tornado chaser to TV weather to military officer. Then in the summer of 2005, between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I happened to be in Florida the week of STS-114. My family and I were pulled off on a road and watched it go. I knew right then that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I went to Space Camp twice at Marshall [Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama] and was hooked on space. I met my current advisor, Mark Lemmon, the summer before I started college and he introduced me to the world of planetary science. I realized studying the weather on other planets was the coolest possible thing I could think of. He took me on as his student and I’ve been working for him since I started at Texas A&M in August 2007.

Do you have a preference of weather on rocky bodies over weather on gas giants, or does all weather have equal standing in your eyes?

I think it’s all cool, but for research I prefer rocky planet atmospheres. On gas giants, a lot of things just go haywire while on terrestrial planets, they’re all rather similar.

If you could study the weather of any planet/moon in the solar system, where would it be?

Shhh, it’s OK, Curiosity. I still <3 Mars, too.

As much as I love Mars, I would study Titan’s weather in a heartbeat. I remember reading a paper suggesting that there are actual severe thunderstorms on Titan! Being a storm chaser on Titan would just be fantastic.

Have you checked out any of the studies of the weather of exoplanets?

I’ve kept up with exoplanet research, since I find it such a new and fascinating field. Our technology won’t let us do much remote sensing on exoplanets for now, but when our technology catches up it would be awesome to study exoplanetary weather.

Recently, Curiosity has been beaming back some pretty cool pictures from Mars – the partial solar eclipses, the crescent Phobos. Is the environment theme group, and by extension, you, responsible for those?

Sol 37: Phobos Transit, or as Keri calls it, “Pac-Moon”

Yes and no. No single person is responsible for any image; every picture requires multiple stages of development and thus multiple people working on them. Someone will come up with a hypothesis to test and develop a strategy to get the images they need to test their idea. Next, the images will be put into the plan, vetted throughout the day and nitpicked by several engineers to make sure the image parameters would help actually get the needed data. The actual sequence will then be written and vetted by several engineers to make sure it’s ready to send to Curiosity. After Curiosity gets the sequence, runs it, and sends the images back, usually at least one scientist assesses the data. However, this doesn’t stop me from having a folder on my computer called “Pictures on Mars I’ve Helped Take” :)

In the realm of geology, rocks are very good for recording all sorts of information. You can look at the strata and follow them back in time to discern all sorts of facts regarding past moisture content and other environmental facts. As one of the science objectives is to “[assess] the long timescale atmospheric evolution of Mars,” what can observing the current atmospheric conditions tell us about the history of Mars’s atmosphere? In what ways is past information preserved and able to be read within what is left today?

With SAM [Sample Analysis at Mars], we’ll be able to determine exact composition of the atmosphere and be able to distinguish some isotopes so this gives us dating information on the atmosphere. We also see rocks have eroded with time and that tells us a lot about how the atmosphere has been acting. We can also detect seasonal changes by seeing clouds, etc. The more clouds we see, the more we know about Mars’ current water vapor content.

There are many types of localized weather phenomena on Earth that occur in specific regions due to a variety of factors – water based events, land based events affected by proximity to large bodies of water, distance from the equator, climate, proximity to mountain ranges, etc. Have any types of localized weather been observed on Mars that only occur in particular regions of the planet? As an example, do dust devils occur globally or only in certain latitudes?

Yes, dust devils are localized! Spirit saw them prolifically but I think Opportunity has seen about 3 in her entire lifetime. Phoenix saw quite a few. Unfortunately Gale Crater looks like it doesn’t have a lot of dust devil activity. I’ll be on the lookout of course, but it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Clouds are more likely to form near the poles, but they are seen nearly everywhere depending on what season you’re in. Dust storms tend to be localized and only affect smaller regions, although global storms aren’t too uncommon!

As a meteorologist, what in particular excites you about Mars? It must be quite different without the driving forces of a liquid/gas cycle, such as the water cycle on Earth or the methane cycle on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

On Mars, dust is the big story. I’m really fascinated by the dust devils, and I hope to go chase them myself someday. The other thing I’m fascinated by is how the atmosphere acts in southern hemisphere winter. A significant portion of the atmosphere actually deposits itself out, causing a global decrease in pressure. This is completely unlike anything on any other planet and it just blows my mind. On Phoenix, we discovered water ice snow out of clouds. The fact that it snows on Mars is just amazing!

One of the stated mission objectives is to “[c]haracterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons.” How is the nature of radiation – say, galactic versus solar – determined?

A lot of it is intensity. Galactic cosmic radiation is very brief but very strong, usually from a distant gamma ray burst. We know when solar events happen because of all the spacecraft monitoring the sun, so we can see when those hit Mars and how much of the radiation reaches the surface. This is incredibly important for any future astronauts on the surface of Mars! The neutrons are detected by DAN [Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons], which can be in a passive or active mode. DAN looks for water in the first meter or so of the surface. The amount of neutrons that DAN detects can tell us a lot about how hydrated the surface is.

Useful Links/Further Reading:
Humorous dialogue we had about scientific-sounding words that are anything but… – via Storify
Keri Bean’s Texas A&M Profile in Atmospheric Studies (I suggest you read this!)
2008 Video Interview With Keri when she worked on Phoenix Mission
RAW Images Taken by Curiosity, hosted by JPL
Curiosity’s Science Goals at JPL
Curiosity’s Mission Objectives, at JPL

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