My Life – Planetary Exploration and Rapidly Accelerating Change

A little over a year ago after a few rough months I decided to start doing what I wanted to do, rather than helping other people with their own goals and dreams. I guess I just didn’t have the confidence before to strike out on my own. An acceptance letter from the University of Arizona (I had applied but didn’t expect to be accepted) provided the opportunity I needed to leave the old baggage behind and start a new life. At 31 I swallowed my fears (Am I too old? Is it too late? Can I do this on my own? Where am I going to get the money?) and moved to Tucson, Arizona.

My “freshman” year is now over. It was rough – I should have done a lot better – but taking control of my life and pursuing my own dreams has turned out to be the very best decision I have ever made. You see, I have always wanted to be a planetary scientist. Well, I am now a member of the operations team for the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), set to launch this August. HiRISE is a technological marvel which will allow resolution of objects on the surface of Mars as small as a meter across.

I did not expect to have a job like this until many years in the future, after I got through school. This new opportunity is a dream come true. There is no way I can put into words just how I excited I am. Everything that has happened in the past year is a direct result of my decision to pursue my own passions and maintain my own independence.

The HiRISE camera is certainly cutting edge, but new technology will make it obsolete very soon. Over on Marshal Brain’s “Robotic Nation Evidence” blog, he provides a link to information about a new robotic binocular vision technology from a company called Focus Robotics. This remarkable technology allows two robotic “eyes” to scan their environment at “[u]p to 60 frames per second of 752×480 depth information” (Focus Robotics, Processor Overview). This compares to current hazard avoidance technology used by the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity that can only scan at a few frames per second at much smaller resolutions.

This technology could enable rovers and orbiters that truly see their environment and respond to it in real time without waiting for instructions from human operators on the Earth. In fact, hazard avoidance is not the only skill this technology enables. Future probes will eventually take over all targeting tasks, currently hardcoded by programmers here on the Earth and uploaded to the probe as a set of rigid instructions through the Deep Space Network. When probes take on these targeting tasks, much of the operations work done here on the Earth will be eliminated.

Of course, such technology will eventually threaten my job, but I have never been one to pass up automation just to feel needed. There are many other ways I can participate in a planetary science mission. If automation means more rapid and comprehensive scientific results, and less repetitious and laborous work for me, then all the better. Instead of distant tools, future probes will become valuable members of science team in enviable frontline positions, returning breathtaking images of alien vistas throughout our solar system and beyond.

I am glad to finally be in a position to not only watch this incredible future unfold but actively participate in it. I challenge everyone to reconsider your current routine and take a chance on your own passions. You cannot do it without hard work and perhaps some luck, but the rewards are even better than you can imagine.

Published by

Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).