The moon.
Higher Ed

‘I do expect something unexpected’: Two UCSC scientists set to join NASA mission in Korea 

Associate researcher Mikhail Kreslavsky and professor Ian Garrick-Bethell have been selected as two of nine scientists to join the upcoming Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) mission.

Two UCSC based planetary scientists are preparing for a project studying an astronomical object closer to home than usual: the moon.

Associate researcher Mikhail Kreslavsky and professor Ian Garrick-Bethell have been selected as two of nine scientists to join the upcoming Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) mission. It is the first space exploration mission from the Republic of Korea to venture past the Earth’s orbit, and is anticipated to launch in August 2022.

It’s both a significant step forward for the Korean scientific community and a fascinating opportunity for our two local researchers. Kreslavsky answered Lookout’s curiosities about the project via email, addressing his duties, working with exciting new equipment, and what he hopes for in the results.

Can you explain the NASA/Korea joint project in layman’s terms?

KPLO is a Korean project. Korea will send a robotic spacecraft toward the moon. It will orbit the moon about 60 miles above its surface and record observations using various scientific instruments. It will also provide radio communication with KPLO through its Deep Space Network (international array of large radio antennas).

Associate researcher Mikhail Kreslavsky.
(Via UCSC)

Ian and I will be performing scientific analysis of the results. Usual NASA practice in this type of collaboration is that NASA pays for the American work done and does not pay the partners. This is good for both sides; NASA obtains first-hand access to new unique data and Korea gains access to our expertise.

How did you get involved in such a big project?

NASA issued an “announcement of opportunity,” in other words, a call for proposals for participation in scientific analysis of the KPLO results. This consisted of around 19 pages of technical text in which we explained how, and why, we want to analyze the KPLO results. Twenty-six scientists (myself and Ian included) submitted proposals. NASA experts reviewed and evaluated these, and proceeded to select nine scientists for participation. I did know two Korean key members of the PolCam (polarization camera) team that I will join, but NASA rules did not allow us to use any “insider” information in the proposal.

In a UCSC press release, you were called “planetary scientists.” What exactly does that entail?

Planetary science studies the whole variety of features and processes on the planets and small bodies. This ranges from observing very small celestial bodies to massive planetary systems. The goal is to gain a better understanding of their history and their makeup. There are many subfields of planetary science; I focus on physical processes that occur on a variety of solid surfaces.

Professor Ian Garrick-Bethell.
Professor Ian Garrick-Bethell.
(Via UCSC)

Who are the other seven scientists? What is their field of expertise? Are they from the U.S. as well?

They are from the U.S. NASA only supports scientists affiliated with U.S. institutions. They all are planetary scientists in general, but they have different narrowly defined areas of expertise and scientific focus. Their fields range from mineralogy and geology to rock magnetism and geochemistry. They will be contributing lab support, data analysis, spectroscopy and more to the KPLO project.

This seems like a lengthy and time consuming endeavor. Will you be teaching/continuing UCSC duties, have to relocate?

Ian teaches, but I purely do research work. My NASA grant to UCSC will give 33% of my salary, I suppose to contribute about one third of my time to the KPLO data analysis. I’ll continue to work on my other projects in parallel. I will not relocate, but the grant includes two one-week-long trips to Korea each year, all other collaboration will be online.

KPLO is set to launch in August of 2022. What exactly will you be doing to help prepare?

Officially my grant starts in August 2021, a year before launch. I’ll need to get familiar with technical details of PolCam, the instrument that I’ll be working with, data formats, computer software, and assisting the PolCam team in planning observations if needed.

What do you hope will come from this project?

I can talk about this for hours. I wrote much about this in my proposal. PolCam is the first ever polarization camera that will be sent to orbit around the moon. This will make it easier to gain information on the structure of lunar soil such as particle size and heterogeneity. While we already have some polarization images of the moon obtained with telescopes, they have their limitations.

First off, because of the Earth’s atmosphere, we cannot see objects smaller than a mile or so even in the best telescopes. PolCam will be able to see objects down to 300 feet in size. Second, because the moon is always showing the same side to the Earth, the optimal observation conditions for measuring polarization only occur in two fairly small regions on the visible side; about 20% of the moon’s total surface area.

PolCam allows images under optimal conditions for approximately 85% of the surface. No doubt, due to the higher image resolution and wider coverage, we will find something unexpected and unpredictable. It happened each time that a new mission to the moon or Mars or any other world gave us new data of higher resolution or wider coverage. Thus, I do expect something unexpected, and this is the most exciting thing about the KPLO mission and PolCam!