PhD student earns out-of-this-world NASA honour

The first time Raymond Francis sat in his Western lab and sent instructions to a robot on the surface of Mars, he had a flashback to being 5 years old and looking at his first book about space and planets. His childhood self could never have imagined one day receiving an award from NASA.

A Western PhD student studying Electrical and Computer Engineering, Francis developed an algorithm that allows a computer system to autonomously interpret images of the sky from Mars.

“I remembered how exciting those images from the surface of another world were,” he said. “I realized that now I’m the guy who tells them where to take the pictures.”

Francis recently received recognition from NASA for his exemplary achievement in planetary science and engineering. The NASA Group Achievement Award is given to individuals who have contributed substantially to an outstanding group accomplishment aligned with the space agency’s overall mission.

The algorithm he developed led to his involvement with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) as a member of the mission’s science operations team.

“One or two days a week, I am assigned a role in mission control for the Curiosity rover and I work in coordinating the scientific part of the plan for the next day’s observations and experiments with the rover.”

The computer program Francis developed autonomously interprets images of clouds taken by the rover. The hope is these cloud images will help determine the past habitability of Mars.

“The question is if this is a place where life could have lived,” he said. “We’ve already got to the point that we’re pretty confident that we’ve found that.”

The mission’s original scheduled duration was one Martian year, which is just under two years on Earth, and is set to end this summer. However, the promising findings lead Francis to believe it will be extended into the future.

“Now, the mission is moving on to looking for evidence there might have been conditions to allow for microbes to exist,” Francis admitted.

Francis’s knowledge in both science and engineering will be a valuable asset to the mission as it moves forward to examine the organic chemistry of the Red Planet, which would help prove the possibility of life on Mars.

Francis credits his success to the ability to study in the interdisciplinary graduate program offered at Western. “It’s not everywhere I could do an engineering degree but be co-supervised by a professor of planetary geology.”

His PhD research is co-supervised by Ken McIsaac from the Faculty of Engineering and Gordon Osinski, who serves as associate director of Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX). Francis’ overall research is in developing autonomous robots to serve planetary science.

With CPSX, Canada’s largest graduate program in planetary science, Francis has experts at his disposal who are willing to share their knowledge of interpreting rocks, which he can then teach the computer, allowing it to analyze the atmospheric conditions on Mars.

“It is because I was able to put one foot in science and the other in engineering that I was able to get into the MSL mission,” he said.

Francis notes the award was unexpected.

“I have to remind myself every now and then of what is really happening, that these instructions that I am preparing are going to go to Mars and run the rover,” he said.