Trailblazer of the Week

Jay Dickson

17 July 2020

According to geomorphologist and Lunar Trailblazer co-investigator Jay Dickson, planetary geologists are in many ways like visual storytellers; his role managing Trailblazer’s data systems will support mapping the Moon’s surface, revealing the chronicles of lunar water.

“The story has already been written on the Moon’s surface, so we just need to tell it!” says Dickson, who develops Geographic Information System (GIS) techniques for planetary spatial analysis as manager of The Bruce Murray Laboratory for Analysis and Visualization of Planetary Data at Caltech. “I am the geomorphologist on the team, so I take the spectral observations that Lunar Trailblazer acquires, and when we map OH, H2O, and ice, I want to figure out what landform it’s detected on, how old is the surface, are there global distribution patterns, how did it get there, etc.”

Dickson is also responsible for Trailblazer’s Science Data System, which will take the raw data that Trailblazer returns and convert it into scientific products for the team, the science community, and the broader public. He is in charge of this vast data pipeline, overseeing the calibration, analysis and visual rendering of data at all stages of the science orbit. This involves collaborating closely with Trailblazer’s dual instrument teams and the rest of the science team to make the most out of the data obtained. Counts of photons hitting detectors must ultimately be translated to maps of water, associated with landforms.

“Right now, I spend my time planning how the data pipeline will work once we are in orbit,” explains Dickson. “So that means making lots of diagrams with lots of arrows that must go in the right direction, and showing them to teammates to make sure that our pipeline works once we’re in orbit.”

Before he began working in the realm of GIS and remote sensing datasets, Dickson had already been drawn to assembling visual sequences and constructing compelling narratives.

“I went to school to be a documentary filmmaker,” Dickson says. “This was right around the time that NASA began returning high-resolution images of Mars, releasing them to the public for free, and I realized that my passion for visual storytelling could be applied to the planets.”

After graduating from Hampshire College, Dickson followed his newfound passion to Brown University where he worked under the wing of planetary scientist Professor Jim Head. Head, who previously worked for NASA’s Apollo program selecting potential landing sites, mentored Dickson’s transition into the extraterrestrial applications of geomorphology.

“I worked at Brown University with Jim Head for 14 years,” says Dickson. “I told visual stories about the surfaces of Mars, Mercury and the Moon, and spent a decade imaging the surface of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica using time-lapse photography, including monitoring Antarctica in austral winter using light reflected, naturally, off of the Moon.”

When he was just getting started in this field during the mid-2000s, Dickson spent some time attending team meetings for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), the visual spectrometer launched aboard India’s first lunar spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1. M3 ultimately produced the first mineralogical map of the Moon’s surface and detected the presence of water at the lunar poles. By attending these meetings, Dickson really got to see how much effort goes into a space mission’s visualization.

“My boss wanted me to see all of these people working very hard on the non-glamorous parts of getting data from the Moon: detailed calibration experiments, instrument testing, making sure International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) documents are in order, etc.,” Dickson says. “But all of that work that nobody ever sees culminated in mapping H2O and OH on the Moon a few years later, which led to Lunar Trailblazer.”

Between his climate monitoring and imaging in Antarctica and a chance to witness the determination behind M3’s groundbreaking data acquisition, Dickson honed the skills he and others would later bring to the Trailblazer mission.

“Many of the people at those M3 meetings fifteen years ago are on Lunar Trailblazer telecons today, and that truly inspires me,” says Dickson. “Fifteen years from now, astronauts will hopefully be sampling H2O deposits that we map with Lunar Trailblazer, but only if we do the non-glamorous parts of our job perfectly.”

Having used remote sensing data for a long time as a scientist, Dickson has a good idea of what works best for the end user, and he feels satisfied to be able to implement that experience in a mission like Lunar Trailblazer. He recalls joining the team somewhat unexpectedly.

“I found out that I was involved with Lunar Trailblazer when the Principal Investigator, Bethany Ehlmann, sent me an early draft of the mission proposal, and my name was mentioned in it,” says Dickson. Happily, Dickson agreed to wrangle the mission’s data.

Following years presenting images and explaining the surface properties of other terrestrial worlds, Dickson knew coming on to Trailblazer that water was part of a greater story in our Solar System’s history.

“Water appears to be surprisingly normal on planetary bodies,” Dickson explains. “It’s at the poles of Mercury, it’s beneath the crust of Europa, it’s gushing out from geysers at the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Ten years ago we were stunned to find water on the Moon, but now we’re surprised if we don’t find water. Studying water on the Moon tells us about how water behaves on other planetary bodies. Most planetary bodies do not have atmospheres, so our knowledge of water on an airless body like the Moon may be representative of how water typically behaves in our Solar System and beyond.”

For Dickson, visualizing lunar water’s next chapter is not just about the pixels, but the people.

“In a broader sense, it is humbling to see how much work goes into making a planetary mission successful,” he says. “Whenever you see an image acquired from another planet or moon, it didn't just happen. It’s the work of a lot of smart people who can't afford to make mistakes.”

Dickson feels especially fortunate to be working in space exploration and is driven by the idea of Trailblazer discovering something it isn’t capable of fully understanding; advancing into the unknown precedes scientific progress, and offers him a certain transcendent solace.

“I think of space exploration the same way I think of music or poetry,” says Dickson. “It doesn’t save lives directly, but I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have it.”

Jay Dickson is a geomorphologist and Trailblazer of the Week! You can follow him on Twitter.

Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.