As many of you know, I work on the Cassini mission as an operations engineer and have done for over a decade.

Tomorrow is the spacecraft’s final close flyby (T126) of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Just to put this into perspective for you, this may be the last time in decades that we get anywhere near Titan. There are no missions to Saturn or its most interesting* moons, Titan and Enceladus, currently funded or being built. That means there’s a minimum of ten years before a new mission could be launched. Given that the transit time to Saturn is, at a minimum, seven years and on average more like ten, that’s two decades until we can repeat Cassini’s observations.

Cassini’s impending demise makes me sad, of course, but what bothers me even more is the lack of continuity in our exploration of our solar system.

You can read the details of tomorrow’s Cassini’s observations on the NASA-JPL press release here. It includes an animation of the flyby over the surface, from the perspective of the spacecraft.

* “most interesting” being ever so slightly subjective, of course
nanila: fulla starz (lolcat: science)
( Mar. 6th, 2017 10:22 pm)
FinalPDTdesigns_S101_800
[Deliberately low-resolution screenshot of my desktop with the short form of one of the design runs.]

Today I submitted, for my line manager's scrutiny, the final set of pointing designs that I will ever do for the Cassini spacecraft. These commands will execute in late August/early September.

Pointing design has been one of my favourite instrument operations tasks for ten years. I am quite sad that it's leaving my repertoire.

(I would be going off to have a whisky now, but since the toddler came home today after four explody nappies due to a gastrointestinal bug that's doing the rounds at nursery, I will instead be trying to get some other work done as he's banned from the nursery for 48 hours. And thus is melancholy tempered by necessity.)
Magnet + iron filings
Photo of a grubby optical table with a piece of chipboard on top of which are two dipole magnets stuck together under a sheet of white paper with iron filings sprinkled on top to show the magnetic field lines. Also on the optical table: a magnetometer, a multimeter, two small magnets, a forming machine and a bean bag. You know, the stuff you usually find on an optical table. Or not.

Anyway, I did this demo for a TV programme today. It's going to be about the end of the Cassini mission, and the segment features my Big Boss, who does all of the talking. I had originally envisioned a sophisticated demonstration involving a magnetometer and an oscilloscope, and instead I ended up sprinkling iron filings on different permutations of magnets for three hours. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ C'est la vie!
nanila: fulla starz (lolcat: science)
( Nov. 2nd, 2016 04:55 pm)
Leiden Centraal to Noordwijk
A selfie I took on the bus from Leiden Centraal to Noordwijk. The bus takes about 45 minutes, so most people opt for a taxi when they’re visiting ESTEC. I like the bus, though. It’s a really pretty route through the city and out into the countryside. Plus, it only costs 4 euros.

While I’m on the subject of space agencies, here are a few links.

  • Want to holiday like an Elder God? Try these lethal exoplanet destinations! Galaxy of Horrors (h/t to [personal profile] redsixwing)

  • For a more soothing experience, you can watch a mildly animated page of the Deep Space Network stations uplinking and downlinking data from different spacecraft. I sometimes do this. I mean, I have a PDF with all the scheduled DSN passes for Cassini, but let’s face it, this is much prettier. Eyes on the DSN.

  • And finally, in Geeky Space Swag news, the Rosetta mission shop has been updated with new shirts and hoodies that include the cartoon spacecraft from the “Once Upon a Time” video series about the mission. Best of all, you can get your mitts on a cuddly/plushy toy of Rosetta and Philae, or donate one to be sent to a primary school.
The Engineer Dress
I got this dress as a reward for backing the Kickstarter campaign Svaha STEAM Angels: Smart Dresses for Smart Women. It's terribly comfortable, and it has pocketses!

I was very pleased that it arrived in time to come with me on my trip to the Netherlands on Tuesday, and make its debut appearance at a European Space Agency meeting.
nanila: (tachikoma: broken)
( Jun. 16th, 2016 08:46 pm)
A little over a year ago, I wrote this, about what I wanted from the UK government. After the general election, I did something I’d consciously rejected all my adult life: I joined a political party. Slowly, verry slowly, I’ve been getting involved in my local party’s activities. I attended a meeting for the first time about a month ago, about campaigning for the Remain side on the EU referendum.

Now, in my constituency, joining any party other than the Conservatives could be seen as a bit of a jolly. Put it this way: Sajid Javid (Business Secretary) is my MP. He toes the party line so hard it’s a wonder he’s not permanently wearing sandals. But still, for me, a naturally cautious person, it was a big step. Even working myself up to entertaining the idea of campaigning for a political cause took me far outside my comfort zone.

Some of that caution has been trained into me. Many scientists discourage their proteges from being actively political. The message that’s tacitly (and sometimes overtly) drilled into us is that politics is for people who are willing to make bold, brash statements and even change laws based on very little evidence or popular sentiment. This idea is anathema to scientists, who are taught to prize the acquisition of repeatable results and well-considered, demonstrable precepts above all things. It takes months or even years to even think of putting possible conclusions based on those results before your peers.Politicians simply don’t have that kind of time to make decisions.

Anyway, my point is that for the first time in my life, I was actually willing to, however remotely, entertain the notion of running for a political office.

And then, today, Jo Cox MP, who has been outspokenly supportive of refugees and campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, was killed in the street by a man who allegedly shouted “Britain First”* as he committed the crime.

Jo Cox is, apparently, the first MP to be murdered since Ian Gow, who was killed by a car bomb planted by the IRA. In 1990.

Jo Cox is a woman only a couple of years older than I am. Jo Cox is survived by her husband and two small children, aged three and five.

So if you’re asking, is this heinous crime going to put women off of the idea of becoming active in politics? I can assure you that the answer is yes.

* an ultra-right political group

[Block diagram of a "generic" space instrument.]

I'm giving a talk next week* and I needed a block diagram of a generic spacecraft instrument. I made one many moons ago but it looks verry dated now and is also about 400x300 pixels and I can't find the original graphics program file. So I thought, I'll make myself a new one.

I'll probably talk about the slide it's on for a minute and a half, maybe two. I probably shouldn't have spent two hours on this. I'm now trying to justify the time spent to myself by sharing it with the internet. Hi, internet!

If you're wondering what this is, it shows how a set of sensors that measure physical parameters in space (on the right in green, labeled MAGOBS and MAGIBS) are connected to a spacecraft (on the left in gold). The physical parameter, in the case of these two sensors, is the ambient magnetic field.

The FEEs transform the physical parameters measured by the sensors into electrical signals.

The ICU is the instrument control unit, which takes telecommands (TCs) and timing signals from the spacecraft and passes them to the sensors. It also takes the data passed back from the front-end electronics (FEEs) and turns it into nice telemetry packets (TMs) that the spacecraft can then package up and beam to Earth through its communications system.

The PCU is the power converter unit, which takes the standard voltage from the spacecraft (usually +28 Volts) and chops it up into secondary voltages that the instrument FEEs can use (e.g. +/- 1.5 Volts)

It all looks very simple, no? You wouldn't think this sort of thing would take a dozen years or so to implement and launch would you? Sadly, you would be wrong about that.

* And two the week after that. They are all different. Whyyyy did I think it would be a good idea to sign up to give a group meeting when I already knew I had another two talks to give? /o\
nanila: (kusanagi: aww)
( Oct. 29th, 2015 01:31 pm)
Remember those Very Excited Year 4 students that I wrote about (DW/LJ) a few weeks back?

Their thank-you cards arrived yesterday.

Heartfelt and wonderful works of art that they are, I thought they merited scanning in and sharing. I shall treasure them.


"Thank you Dr [nanila]!" by Beattie

+13 )

Yeah, I cried at my desk. <333333
Every year since 2009 I've demonstrated in Instrumentation lab in the autumn term. Instrumentation is a third/fourth year elective Physics course, and normally about half of the students also do the lab.

Every year we have between 10 and 30 students in the lab. Every year a percentage of them is female. At most, about a quarter of them. One abysmal year it was 5%.

This year, we have 14 students. Seven of them are female.

Seven. SEVEN. Half of this third-year lab is FEMALE. We have never even been close to parity before.

And they're good, too, all of the students. Some are stronger than others, of course, but overall the standard is high.

TL;DR: HALF MY PHYSICS STUDENTS ARE FEMALE. THIS IS AMAZING. I AM SO HAPPY ABOUT IT. THIS HAS PRETTY MUCH MADE MY YEAR IN TEACHING Y'ALL.

WIN \o/ \o/ \o/
I'm spoiler-immune AND I read the book before I went to see the film, so I will do everyone who is spoiler-sensitive a favour and simply put this entire post behind a cut.

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere I'm sure )

Still, A++++, will def get on DVD and watch again.
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