Interview: Snapping the first-ever image avalance on Mars

We spoke to Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson about the work behind the historic photograph of the avalanche and her work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project.

Last month a NASA spacecraft orbiting around Mars captured the first ever image of avalanches, or debris falls in action near the Red Planet's North Pole. The image showed tan clouds billowing away from the foot of a towering slope, where ice and dust have just cascaded down.

Launched August 12, 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a seven-month cruise to Mars and six months of aero braking to reach its science orbit. Its mission is to seek to find out about the history of water on Mars with its science instruments by zooming in for extreme close-up photography of the Martian surface, analysing minerals, looking for subsurface water, trace how much dust and water are distributed in the atmosphere, and monitor daily global weather.

How did this historic moment get captured? The High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) on-board the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took the photograph on 19 February as one of approximately 2400 HiRISE images released in this series.

Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who works on targeting the camera and has studied hundreds of HiRISE images, was the first person to notice the avalanches.

"It really surprised me," she said. "It's great to see something so dynamic on Mars. A lot of what we see there hasn't changed for millions of years."

We spoke to Ingrid Daubar Spitale, who works as a MRO HiRISE Uplink Ops about the work behind the historic photograph of the avalanche and her work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project.

Goodgearguide: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched August 12, 2005, is on a search for evidence that water persisted on the surface of Mars for a long period of time. What sort of science instruments does it use? What instruments do you primarily use in your role in this program?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: I work for HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, on board the MRO. HiRISE will image only 1 per cent of the Martian surface over the primary mission, but it will do so at ~30cm/pixel, the highest resolution ever achieved from orbit. HiRISE also has colour and stereo imaging capabilities. More specs for the HiRISE camera.

Another instrument on board MRO is CRISM CRISM – short for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars. CRISM takes spectra of the surface and atmosphere to determine composition.

CTX, the context camera, will image much more of the planet, but at lower resolution.

SHARAD is a radar instrument run by the Italian Space Agency, which penetrates to shallow depths in the Martian crust, looking for water and water ice.

These are some of six science instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter listed here.

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Goodgearguide: Do you work across a variety of projects and roles at the University? Or is the HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) your primary project?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: HiRISE is my full-time job.

Goodgearguide: What does an average work day consist of, from when you arrive in the office to when you leave?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: There's not really any such thing as an "average" workday! I can try to give you a feel for what the job involves, though.

I'm the Uplink Operations Lead. Uplink Operations means planning and commanding the images in a given cycle. We rotate two-week cycles between the uplink operations staff members. So during a given planning cycle, you're responsible for all of the images the camera takes. We work closely with a member of the science team who determines the scientific focus of the cycle. We start out planning the highest-priority observations, then the next-highest priority, and so forth, trickling down to eventually just filling in spaces to use all of the downlink available. This involves coordinating observations with the other instrument teams and the broader MRO mission run out of JPL, choosing camera parameters like binning and the number of lines, verifying the safety of the instrument, and finally building the commands. They're radiated through the Deep Space Network, executed on board the spacecraft, and in the end you're rewarded with beautiful images of Mars!

When we're not planning a specific cycle, we do a lot of updating of procedures, software development and testing, and of course attending many meetings.

Goodgearguide: Cameras orbiting Mars have taken thousands of images that have enabled scientists to put together pieces of the planet's geologic history. What information or puzzles have you been able to work out from the images and other material gathered?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: That's a really big question! We've learned a lot about the climate and geological history of the planet. Scientists know more now abut the history of water on Mars, although there are still lots of mysteries left to solve. We've been able to study large impacts, volcanoes, and the polar ice caps, for example, all of which have implications for our own planet.

Some specific scientific results from HiRISE are featured here:

For more about the scientific goals of MRO:

Goodgearguide: What has been the most challenging aspect of your work, technically?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: The images we're taking are huge! A typical image might be 60,000 x 20,000 pixels. Some are much, much larger. We've encountered lots of hurdles processing and storing all that data, not to mention the technical challenges involved in serving up these huge images to the public. We're using a technology called JPEG 2000, which is a new format for most users.

Goodgearguide: You have a team of people you work with on your projects, what is their input/contribution into your work and research?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: Yes, a lot of people work on the HiRISE project. We have a large science team of researchers, professors, and students distributed at universities and research institutions all over the country, with one team member even based in Switzerland. A lot of software developers have contributed to the planning, commanding, processing, and database software. We have great systems administrators who keep things running smoothly. The operations team is also quite large: some of them do downlink (processing, validating and releasing images), and some do uplink (planning, targeting, commanding images), like me.

Goodgearguide: What has been the most exciting or memorable moment working on the HiRISE?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: The mission has been full of exciting moments! The successful launch of MRO was exciting, for one. That's a risky time for missions, and we were very relieved when it went off without a hitch. Our first image in flight was also a big milestone – we got a beautiful image of the Earth's Moon a few weeks after launching. It showed that the camera was working perfectly, and gave us a taste of all the gorgeous images to come.

Another exciting moment happened just a few weeks ago, when we found the avalanches that have been in the news lately. That was a tremendous surprise, and it was really fun to be part of that discovery.

Goodgearguide: What has been one of the more humorous moments at work?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: I'm part of a really wonderful team – everyone works hard, but we try to have some fun as well. One example is how we've gotten carried away with our acronyms. Since before I started here, a convention has been in place to call everything "Hi-something". So the validation tool is called "HiVali", the temperature modelling software is called "HiTemp", the Back-Up Targeting Specialist is called HiBUTS, and so on. We've had a lot of fun with those names.

Goodgearguide: What was your technical background before joining HiRISE?

Ingrid Daubar Spitale: My background is actually in Planetary Sciences, rather than a more technical field. I have a Master's of Science from the University of Arizona here in Tucson. I've picked up some of the technical stuff along the way, including some programming in Perl.