Trina L. Ray, guest columnist, science system engineer for the project scientist
As the Cassini spacecraft prepares for an exciting Halloween flyby of the tiny moon Enceladus, scientists and engineers from all over the world gathered for the week- long Project Science Group (PSG) meeting here in Pasadena, California - and the first PSG meeting led by our new Project Scientist Bob Pappalardo. With a new Project Scientist at the helm, the PSG meeting had a different flow and tone, but still was exciting. The meeting was shorter and slightly rearranged, but interestingly, the fact that he rearranged the physical layout and had all the key participants at the front around a U shaped set of tables got a lot of attention. This was the 46th PSG meeting, which has been held roughly three times per year since 1991!
The week usually begins with a series of reports on the spacecraft, the view from Washington, DC (headquarters), and then special presentations on the key topics for the week. For PSG #46, the team was discussing the proposal for a Cassini extended, extended mission (XXM). Topics discussed include what should the tour look like, what science objectives are the highest priority, how can we operate differently (more cost effectively) in an extended, extended mission environment, and what automation and simplification will help. All of this is done to maximize the science return from the Cassini-Huygens Mission, from which we have all come to expect GREAT things!
Of course, every PSG week has some time devoted to science talks. The scientists organize themselves by instrument but also by "discipline." The five key disciplines for the Cassini-Huygens mission are Saturn, the rings, the magnetosphere, Titan, and the icy satellites. Each discipline meets to hear presentations on recent science results, to get feedback from colleagues, to discuss collaboration, to resolve conflicts, to discuss and plan upcoming science opportunities, and finally to provide advice to the project about the topics of interest - this time the XXM. There are many tradeoffs that affect the scientific success of the mission, and for this one week, here at JPL, all the scientists gather to discuss the relevant topic of the day, and it's always an exciting week.
Many of the more contentious conflicts between the science teams, or between science and engineering, are held until a PSG meeting so that everyone can sit down face to face, and the decisions of the executive session are always eagerly awaited. By the end of the week, exhaustion has set in for those of us who attended the meeting. There is a set of action items we all take away to tackle, and somewhere, someone is thinking about the next PSG...it's only four months away...what will be the topic of interest for PSG #47?