Emily LakdawallaMar 19, 2012

Ready for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference?

I'm writing at a ridiculously late hour in my hotel room in Houston, the night before the start of the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. LPSC (as it is usually referred to -- and I am usually very good about not using acronyms and abbreviations but I am afraid I will probably refer to it as LPSC) -- is an annual conference, held in Houston, for the sharing of recent work in fields related to planetary geology. In opposition to DPS (the meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, held every October), LPSC is a meeting of geologists who work on solid surfaces across the solar system; DPS is a meeting of astronomers who study things that are not stars that orbit stars.

Like most such meetings, LPSC will have several (usually, four) concurrent oral sessions, each focused on a distinct subject area, in which speakers will have a short time to give an oral presentation, allowing a few minutes for audience questions. There are a couple of "plenary" sessions, where there are no other concurrent oral sessions; and there are two poster sessions, where scientists present their work in grownup science fair posters. It runs all week.

But LPSC is different, somehow. People don't ordinarily express their love for conferences, but people love LPSC. Even though LPSC has grown by more than an order of magnitude since it started, there is a very strong feeling of community to it; every year's LPSC is like Homecoming weekend. I don't know if the idea of Homecoming translates outside of the US. The idea is that we here who attend LPSC are a community of people who spend most of the year dispersed across the country and even around the world, but once a year we reunite in Houston, talk about our kids and adventures and what we've been working on, do a little work, have dinner together, drink lots of beer, and generally reestablish our ties before dispersing again. This meeting is different in part because it's a meeting of geologists, who, as a rule, are convivial types, as happy to toast a friend with a beer as they are to hike a mountain; they're a little more extroverted than your usual physicist or astronomer (obviously, I am speaking in broad generalities here, and there are always exceptions). Also, I think that there are so few schools that produce planetary geologists, that this really is like a Homecoming event for people from Brown, Hawaii, Arizona and ASU, and a few other places that have produced the lion's share of the world's supply of people who study rocks on other planets.

There is always great science to talk about. There are always the Moon and Mars, new science in pretty much continuous sessions all week long. Tomorrow there's a full day of oral sessions on the latest Cassini results. Tuesday for me will be icy moons and public outreach. Wednesday will be MESSENGER and the latest from Opportunity; Thursday, asteroids, Mars' moons, and Dawn. Friday there's more asteroids and GRAIL results. On Tuesday and Thursday are poster sessions, followed by the annual University of Hawaii and University of Arizona post-meeting parties. Monday night is NASA night, when the gathered planetary scientists will be brandishing pitchforks and torches at poor Jim Green and John Grunsfeld who really can't be blamed for the current situation but who will have to bear the righteous and rightful wrath of this community for what NASA has threatened to do to its planetary science program. Wednesday evening, by contrast, will be a poignant, bittersweet gathering of Women in Planetary Science, honoring our shared memory of Susan Niebur.

As I mentioned, there are four concurrent sessions, and I can't attend even all of one, much less show up in all four; I'll be doing my best to Tweet and Retweet results that can be explained in 120 characters, and will try to shove out a blog entry every evening with some of the best material I accumulated during the day. At the same time, this is my chance to meet my grad school friends and associates, catch up on the last two years of our lives, and get leads on future stories, and there's no way I'm going to get to everything cool. But I'll do what I can.

Tonight, I've caught up with a few friends, had a lovely dinner and drinks with Irish TV space guy Leo Enright and space.com's Leonard David. I chatted with a very happy Maria Zuber about the early data coming in from her GRAIL mission to the Moon. I had senior statesman of Russian planetary science Sasha Basilevsky expressing surprise that I was still married to the same guy, because, as beautiful as I am, I should have married TEN guys by now. I exchanged the woes of baby parenthood with a grad school officemate. I conspired with Matt Chojnacki about mobilizing graduate students to rally for political support of planetary science. It's been busy already, and the conference hasn't even begun yet. Meanwhile, I've heard from my sister-in-law -- with whom I've left my kids for part of the week -- that my older daughter has called her "my substitute mommy." Works for me!

Tomorrow, I plan to spend most of the day in the Cassini sessions, with a few detours to the session on Martian gullies. If you are reading this, and you are here, and are attending sessions that I will not be: please offer me your notes for me to crib posts from! I can offer fame forever in return.

Stay tuned for the best new stuff from across the solar system!

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