Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Day at Desert-RATS

I spent an amazing couple of weeks in northern Arizona with the Desert-RATS team this year. The Desert RATS field test activity coordinates individual science, technology and operations development efforts into a field test demonstration under representative (analog) planetary surface terrain conditions. The purpose of the RATS effort is to drive out preliminary exploration operational concepts for EVA system requirements by providing hands-on experience with simulated planetary surface exploration extravehicular activity (EVA) hardware and procedures. The 2009 Desert RATS activity had the first significant integration of science into the overall operational scenario by providing geological context and protocols both prior to and during surface activities at the Black Point Lava Flow. We had one half of an operations trailer for the SSR. Each day, we had eight backroom functions and two field observers out in the real world looking over the crew’s shoulders. I got to rotate though field observing, the three “expert” stations (Petrography, GigaPan, and Structures), and SciCom, who communicated directly with the crew during science operations. August 29/30 were one-day traverses by Crew B (Andy Thomas and Jake Bleacher), and September 2-9 were geologic traverses during a 14-day test by Crew A (Mike Gernhard and Brent Garry). I was an SSR observer on Sept. 3 and here’s the play-by-play. Keep up with their photos here!

7:45 today I’ll try to keep up a stream from the science backroom @DESERT_RATS. It's a very busy place but today I am a floater/observer.
7:56 our day has already started with a tagup at 7 am and everyone is busily preparing for wheels rolling at 8:14.
8:02 the astronauts are in the rover and the science backroom is starting the daily pretraverse briefing. it's in powerpoint, of course :/
8:07 Jose is PI today; he planned the traverse and science objectives, and is explaining them to the crew.
8:10 the science prep purposefully used only bw aerial imaging. It's up to the crew travers to help us understand the area and its geology
8:18 Lunar Electric Rover (LER) is rolling
8:40 the crew has reached station 1 and are preparing for egress; backroom is using LER cameras to see the surroundings
8:45 EV1 (Jake) is in his suit and backroom gave him a set of targets to sample. it's a collaboration between what we want and what he can get.
8:55 EV2 (Andy) is in the LER feeding images and descriptions to us
9:05 nearing the end of the 25 minute EVA; we bagged 2 basalt rocks and a soil.
9:08 and a bonus float rock from EV2. thanks Jake!
9:10 phew, that was frantic. backroom captures images, documents samples, types observations, keeps time, and reassesses on the fly.
9:16 on the short drive to the next site, EV2 is hanging out in the suit port
9:22 we're getting a narrative of site 2 environs and preparing for a rapid Gigapan acquisition
9:26 when crew goes out of LER, it's egress. when they hang out in the back and step off, it's offgress. Offgress?
9:30 now at site 2. we only have a single comm channel and right now it's cacophonous.
9:31 science objectives at site 2; contact between lava flow and sandstone; sample sandstones.
9:53 we've accumulated 20 mins negative time, so site 3 will be drive-by rather than EVA
9:59 the flexible shroud that covers the suit ports is called the Cabana, and you *know* that always triggers Barry Manilow in my mind.
10:38 pays to have an itchy trigger finger: snuck in a quick gigapan when the crew stopped to answer some medical metrics
10:40 I walked out of the trailer and nearly bumped into the ATHLETE. Yowza.
10:45 passing stations 4 and 5, small mesas of the beautiful red Moenkopi formation
11:04 the LER navigates on GPS and Google Earth. Good thing we've also got Google Moon!
11:08 large brownish quadrupeds surrounded by a large fence-like formation on the left
11:20 driving over shale and brush to the next visible outcrop. science backroom is catching up and filling out metrics (ugh)
11:32 oooh, someone brought in otter pops for the backroom! :)
11:33 found station 6 via combination of K10 reconnaissance knowledge and realtime navigation
11:39 preparing for dual crew egress. station 6 goals: sample lava flow and sandstone; compare with previous site stratigraphy
12:11 one of the reasons I am here is to understand ops differences between Apollo and MER. they are as big as I expected!
12:18 lunchtime!!
12:55 science backroom took the lunchbreak to modify the traverse plans for the afternoon. No science is worth staying until 9 pm :)
13:01 psyched to see @marsrovergirl here @DESERT_RATS; she's putting ATHLETE thru its paces
13:34 hooray! BubbleCam is functional, capturing images right below the LER nose.
13:50 heading on a northern spur where we may lose comm; briefing the team on EVA activities without us in the loop
13:58 passing old tracks, footprints, cowpatties. If we could find them on Mars, we'd be golden :)
14:04 hooeee our science backroom trailer is a'rockin in the fierce wind outside
14:07 oh and also, tons of fun to Dust_devil_WATCH
14:23 ok, finally to station 8. science goals: describe and sample every unit. modest, we know.
14:35 during EVAs, we get video from cameras on the crew's halmets and shoulders, and we get to control the rover cameras to zoom in on outcrops.
15:04 extremely successful station 8 with 10 samples in 25 minutes! rocks : geologists :: donuts : Homer Simpson.
15:07 gorgeous photo of station 8 from @DESERT_RATS
15:36 we're making extensive use of GigaPan. 360 color coverage at 2 elevations in 1.93 minutes. But no near IR channels.
15:41 driving thru soft soils in a wash; soil is caking on the wheels. But its shallow compared with LER's big fat tires (mmm cake and a Fat Tire)
16:00 team is doing dome driveby geology on the way home. conglomerates, high albedo depressions, mesas oh my
16:55 made good time on the way back so were able to squeeze in one more EVA. Crew and ops are both feeling good about the day!
16:56 pics from the last EVA of the day
17:31 LER is back in camp; science team is discussing and preparing debrief
17:42 We get 15 minutes with the crew after Human Factors gets their info.
18:17 Great job everyone. it was a long day but we all learned a LOT :)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Decadal Survey in 140 characters or less

I'm a member of the Inner Planets panel of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. We're responsible for representing the communities who study Mercury, Venus, and the Moon. We recently held our first panel meeting in Washington DC and I tried to twitter along. The tweets were crossposted to Facebook and generated a lot of interesting discussion too! But if you aren't a fan of those two sites, here's the running narrative.

August 26th

6:21 AM I'm headed to DC for a meeting of the Inner Planets panel of the Decadal Survey. Hoping to twitter it! Stay tuned.

1:16 PM kicking off the closed session with boring but necessary logistics.

1:24 PM I wonder how many mission statements you can sing to the tune of the Preamble to the Constitution. Well, at least one, the NAS.

1:30 PM the National Academy of Science started around he civil war; early studies included "how to keep soldiers from drinking too much whiskey"

1:37 PM in order of descending age: National Academy of Sciences > smackwell > Space Studies Board > NASA > me

2:27 PM bias and conflict of interest, or, True Confessions, Science Edition.

2:44 PM wow, what an impressive group of people assembled in this room.

3:07 PM I'll never, ever be sick of listening to Steve Squyres

3:52 PM open session (Ellen says, "truly open") beginning now. live webcast at

4:14 PM Only planetary bodies without current or planned missions: Uranus and Neptune. Good time to be a planetary scientist!

4:35 PM Discovery draft AO is signed and expected by FY09; AO by CY09; cost cap $425M excluding LV and ASRG provided as GFE. LOL and BYOB.

4:53 PM How is community input is shaping up for lunar science in white papers for the Decadal Survey?

5:31 PM was the last decadal survey *too* detailed in specifying what missions were expected to accomplish? or does detail help scope the issues?

5:46 PM open session is over. we're breaking before a working dinner. predinner: small group to get the creative juices flowing ;)

August 27

8:07 AM ILN is first on the agenda today; nerves starting to set in.

8:09 AM Inner Planets webcast and telecon number are listed on our agenda:

10:08 AM Sean Solomon is talking about Mercury now. Mercury is cool (hot). Also Sean is wearing an excellent abstract-modern-planetary tie.

10:21 AM Great acronym for a Mercury mission: WGBMWGMWDPD! (We're Going Back to Mercury and We're Going to Map the Whole Damn Planet Dammit!)

10:34 AM huh, Mercury's spectra are pretty flat - not much ability to pull out mineralogy.

10:40 AM Post-MESSENGER, Bepi-Columbo ESA/JAXA mission with dual coplanar orbiters to Mercury in 2014. What should be next? Landers or sample return?

11:35 AM ahhhh, for days spent lounging by warm salty oceans on Venus.

1:04 PM 2 really awesome lunch discussions with 2 of my science idols, wow, I am lucky to be here.

1:08 PM Sue Smrekar: Venus challenges our ideas of how a terrestrial planet "should" work.

1:54 PM Jim Head on future science for Moon & Mars: the future is not in plastics, but plasticity - that is, adaptability and opportunity

2:22 PM Did Carl Sagan really call the Moon a burned-out cinder? Wow. That's harsh.

2:37 PM Venus: Earth's twin? Earth's sister? Earth's future self? Some other relation?

2:42 PM Jim Head: Could global resurfacing (Venus) happen here? If I were in charge of Earth, I'd worry about it; fortunately for everyone I'm not.

3:34 PM For the rest of the afternoon, we'll be talking about JPL, APL, and GSFC support for mission studies we'll be exploring.

4:14 PM I have a new role model: Ellen Stofan. She's brilliant, organized, and wears pink.

4:36 PM GSFC on LRO: "Even though this mission went to the Moon, it really was very much like a planetary mission"

5:18 PM thank you thank you thank you GSFC and APL presenters for making up schedule time.

August 29

8:15 AM Inner Planets starting in 15 minutes; join us using info here

8:17 AM Sample Return: Part of a balanced and nutritious planetary mission portfolio

8:44 AM Sample return missions include more than just the mission itself - curation and laboratory facilities are crucial (but legacy)

8:55 AM atmospheric sample return from Venus?

9:39 AM lunar meteorites = poor man's sample return mission

10:12 AM Closed session until lunch - discussing all the work we have in front of us!

10:25 AM Everyone should be writing or endorsing White Papers - it's your way of letting us know what's important to you!!

11:37 AM How well did NASA follow the recommendations of the last Planetary Decadal Survey?

12:59 PM White papers *must* be submitted via the SSB web page by September 15!

3:27 PM this afternoon: DCA-PHX, shuttle to Flagstaff. Tomorrow I join @DESERT_RATS; *so* psyched!