What did Elaina McCartney do when she was asked to join the Mars mission team at Cornell?
"As a person who's devoured science fiction all my life, it took absolutely no time at all to make THAT decision," says McCartney, a Mission Planner for the APEX and Athena explorations of Mars.
McCartney has an important role in the Mars missions-to help plan out the many, many steps to achieve the scientific objectives of a landed mission on the surface of the red planet. Each detail of the mission must be planned out painstakingly in advance.
"We're taking the science objectives of the mission and turning them into a long series of commands," describes McCartney. "Math plays a big role-we do an awful lot of spreadsheet planning, and use software that helps us visualize our resources and goals."
Since the Martian sol (day) is about a half hour longer than a day on Earth, during the landed mission members of the APEX and Athena teams will live their lives here on Earth as the sun rises and sets on the red planet. Sometimes the Earth days and the Martian sols will match up fairly closely. For most of the mission, though, McCartney and the other scientists will be keeping some odd hours, making sure commands are sent to Mars in time for the Martian workday.
According to McCartney, keeping track of when the sun is shining on Mars is critical to the success of the mission. The rover and the lander use solar power, and many of the instruments can only operate effectively at warmer daytime temperatures. Rover navigation and science cameras need light as well.
Surprisingly, not all of McCartney's planning happens on the computer. "We do a lot of planning sitting on the floor with popsicle sticks and poker chips," she reveals with a laugh. McCartney and her team build maps of rover traversals of Martian surface with simple materials in order to prepare themselves to operate a lander and rover for gathering samples in the Martian terrain.
McCartney's work at Cornell has really had its ups and downs. In order to observe and measure the behavior of fluids in low and zero gravity environments, she has flown 11 flights on the KC-135, NASA's specially designed research plane also known as the Vomit Comet. The large aircraft repeatedly climbs and dives, with each parabola creating about 30 seconds of weightlessness for everyone in the padded cargo hold of the plane.
She must have enjoyed her experiences on the Vomit Comet - she's flown about 450 parabolas. Says McCartney, "It's a good way to compare our computer simulations of granular flow in microgravity to actual experimental results. On Earth, that is."
Even in her free time, McCartney has made exploration of planetary processes a priority.
"I spent most weekends last fall helping excavate some 11,000-year-old mastodon bones from a bog in New York State," tells McCartney. "A man who was digging a pond found a scapula and femur of what's turned out to be one of the most complete skeletons ever found."
But McCartney's focus is now squarely placed on geologic sites many millions of miles away: Mars, Eros, Jupiter and Saturn. McCartney is also on the X-ray Gamma Ray Spectrometer team of the NEAR spacecraft, which began orbiting the asteroid Eros on Valentine's Day, and helps plan ISS imaging for Cassini's flyby of Jupiter and mission to Saturn.
"To be able to participate in the exploration of space is exciting," she says. "No one knows what we will find on Mars. We are expanding our knowlege of the solar system and the universe."