Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The life of a MAVEN instrument lead

Jasper Halekas, SWIA instrument lead, University of California, Berkeley
While talking over a schedule issue with Dave Curtis (MAVEN Particles and Fields Package manager, and my immediate superior) the other day, I said to him, “I don’t know how you do it. It already feels like herding cats at my level. At your level it must feel like herding herds of cats.” As it turns out, I think that conversation pretty well sums up my role as an instrument lead. I’m at just the right level that I have to manage a pretty big herd of cats, but not so high that I have to manage multiple herds.

By the same token, I’m at a level at which I can actually focus on what is going on at the individual cat level, rather than having to manage at the herd level. The items I have to juggle to make a Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA) come together include mechanical and electrical design and testing, software and firmware, data processing and analysis, and of course, science. My team of talented cats engineers does all of the really hard work in the trenches, and the instrument couldn’t be built without their hard work and dedication. I hold the overall responsibility for producing an instrument that will do the best possible job of returning great science data from Mars, but I depend on the engineers to design, assemble, and test each of the components of the instrument with incredible care and precision.

To do my job right, I have to understand my instrument at a systems level, so that I know how these various components work together. This perspective helps me identify when an issue with one element may affect others, or when one seemingly small change in one place may ripple through the system and result in unforeseen consequences elsewhere. In practice, this means that I do a little bit of everything, including designing electrostatic optics for the sensor, writing specifications documents, talking over mechanical details with the engineers, poring over circuit board schematics and layouts looking for noise sources, writing procedures, carrying out tests, performing calibrations, and developing and debugging data analysis software. And of course, writing and responding to lots and lots and lots of e-mails. Did I mention that I am developing a touch of “E-mail Anxiety Disorder” on this project?

Jasper Halekas is the MAVEN instrument lead for the Solar Wind Ion Analyzer (SWIA) and an Assistant Research Physicist at the University of California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory. His current research focuses on solar wind interaction with the solid surface,  atmosphere/ exosphere, and crustal magnetic fields of the Moon and Mars. (Courtesy J. Halekas)
In addition to understanding my instrument and keeping track of the overall design, I have to be on the ball, on top of all of the activities happening on a day-to-day basis, and ready to immediately deal with the problems that inevitably crop up. Generally, dealing with a problem means some combination of testing to identify a cause, researching the issue, and talking to other scientists and engineers, in order to learn enough to make an informed decision as to the right path forward. Often, it means juggling schedules on a week-by-week, or sometimes a day-by-day level, to make sure that different parts of the instrument all come together at the right time. Sometimes, it means jumping into a gap and (for instance) helping write a procedure for applying conformal coating to an electronics board, or a rework/repair form. Other times, it means gowning up and heading into a clean room to test a circuit board that shows some unexpected behavior (carefully following planetary protection requirements, proper electrostatic discharge prevention protocol, etc.). All too often, it means writing and reviewing documents...and e-mails. (Did I mention the e-mails?)

At the end of the day, though, it all comes back to making sure that my instrument is going to do great science. At Mars, my instrument needs to measure the solar wind energy input into the Martian atmosphere, in order to determine how the solar wind drives atmospheric escape to space. To produce an instrument that will do the best job of performing that task, we test, test, test, and test some more. First, we build engineering models of everything. Once we think we have a basic design that works, we test each flight component, test every flight electronics board, test every mechanism, perform Comprehensive Performance Tests on the integrated flight instrument, and calibrate the flight instrument with an ion source in vacuum to characterize the optics. We bombard the instrument with electromagnetic frequencies, measure its emissions, shake it really hard, and heat it up and cool it down to extremes past anything we expect to see in cruise or on orbit at Mars. Then we test it some more. When we break things—as we inevitably do—we fix them and make them better so they won’t ever break in flight.

It’s easy to forget how intrinsically cool my job is, as I’m herding cats, wading through stacks of documents, and attending endless meetings. But, I try to never completely lose sight of the fact that we’re building something that is ultimately going to fly to Mars and send back amazing data. It’s absolutely worth working really hard on that task and making sure it’s done right, even if I do have a few nightmares and develop some neuroses about my inbox along the way.

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