Desert RATS: Geology from the Rover

By Dr. Jacob Bleacher
Dr. Jacob Bleacher is a Planetary Geologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Bleacher is the geology crew member on rover B during week one.

I am a geologist who studies lava flows on the Earth, moon, and Mars. To do so, I conduct field work on lava flows here on the Earth for comparison with other planets. The Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is a tremendous asset for conducting field geology in extreme environments. Unlike Apollo, where the crew needed to return to the Lander at the end of each day, we use the SEV to travel from a site of geologic interest to another site of geologic interest, without being forced to return to a common location every night. As such, we carry the most important geologic tool with us, the geologist.

To support the geologist, the rover has a bevy of tools. Once we reach an exciting site, and our commander has picked a safe location to park, we begin by recording a voice note to tell the science team what our plan is for exploring the area. This note is supported by video and images taken from cameras mounted on masts above the rover. After providing an overview to the science team, they are given control of the cameras to track our progress outside of the rover. At this point, we move to the back of the rover, where the suitports are located, and begin our Extra-Vehicular Activity or EVA. The suitports are a new design allowing us to climb into the suit through its backpack. The process keeps the suit and the dust that sticks to it on the outside of the rover.

Once outside, we collect the tools that we will need to complete our objectives for the site. We have a standard geologist hammer, shovels, core tube (to collect soils without disturbing their layers), and sample bags. We also have two cameras mounted on our backpacks. We use the cameras to show the scientists at base camp the rocks and samples we are collecting. With the cameras, we record notes for the science team. Our field notes describe sample characteristics and its relationship to other samples. The cameras provide audio, video, and high definition images that help us document what we have done.

After we collect samples, we weigh them and store them in a locker on the aft (back deck of the rover.) The aft is where the samples are stored until we meet up with the Pressurized Excursion Module or PEM. Our SEV docks to the PEM. The PEM is a large habitat housing tools and equipment we use to repair our suits or hardware. In the habitat we also have medical equipment and a geology work station. The geology workstation has laboratory instruments we use to study exciting samples in more detail. This is how we will use the SEVs to explore the geology of another planet or the moon.

Geologists collecting rock samples

Geologists Dr. Jacob Bleacher (left) and Dr. Jim Rice (right) take a closer look before collecting samples.

Rover docked with the PEM

Space Exploration Vehicle rovers A & B connected to the Pressurized Excursion Module (PEM).

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