DesertRATS overview by the Science Operations lead


By Dean Eppler,

Dean is this year’s Desert RATS Science Operations Lead

 I’m responsible for putting together the team of scientists that will be working with the crew in the field when they are doing science activities at Black Point.  I was originally trained as a geologist, but after more than 20 years in the space program, I’ve developed a specialty in defining and executing field science operations – the actual activities a scientist would do outside of a laboratory to understand and explore a particular location.  I’ve been fortunate to work at the South Pole, several hundred miles from the North Pole, on volcanoes, in the Grand Canyon, and in everything from a helicopter to a space suit.

After graduating from Governor Livingston High School in New Jersey in 1970, I went to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York in 1974.  I received a Masters Degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1976 and after a stint in the U.S. Army, I attended Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, where I received a Ph.D. in 1984.  I have been working in the Space Program since 1990, when I moved to Houston as an employee of Science Applications International Corporation.  My Desert RATS history goes back to 1997, when Mr. Joe Kosmo and I were part of the first Desert RATS team that went to Death Valley to do ergonomic studies of what geologists do in the field.  On that first venture, and almost 10 years of subsequent RATS trips, I was the test subject while Dr. Sudhakar Rajulu, a biomechanics expert, did motion studies of my activities as a did a variety of geologic investigations.  In 1998, I “graduated” to doing space suited activities, and for the next 8 years, I was the principal space suit test subject on our almost yearly excursions to Arizona and California.  In 2007, I moved up to the science management area, and in 2009, I was hired by NASA, in part to build on my experience on the previous Desert RATS exercises to expand the science support part of the test.

Last year, we tested a 14-day lunar exploration mission, with a full science team supporting the operation…now, what that means in simple terms is that when an astronaut is out on a planet’s surface, doing scientific exploration, there is a wide variety of people supporting them.  Some of these folks are from Johnson Space Center’s Mission Operations Directorate and they are concerned with things like the astronaut’s health and safety, the timeline of the day’s operation, and what to do in an emergency.  Our science team last year was responsible for paying attention to the scientific part of the mission – what do we want to accomplish scientifically, how is the crew doing it, do they need any scientific expertise to supplement their considerable talents, and are we seeing significant discoveries that we need to pay close attention to?  To accomplish that, we had approximately 10 scientists sitting in the science mission control 8-12 hours a day, in effect watching over the shoulders of the crew and helping them do their job in the field.

An important part of what we’re doing is testing – trying out new ideas for things no one has done before, seeing what works, discarding what doesn’t and improving what did.  Although NASA has been working on space exploration for 50 years now, there’s still a lot we don’t know how to do, and that we have to learn.  The most important part of this business is ideas – thinking of new ones, and testing them so we know what works, and equally important, what doesn’t.

That’s all I have for today…I’ll be posting more details in the next couple of days about what we’re doing, and what we’re learning.

I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it!

By Darlene Lim – Principal investigator for Pavilion Lake Research Project

When Dana Lis, our PLRP Education and Public Outreach coordinator, asked me to write a blog about how I was feeling, the first word that popped into my mind was – EXCITED! After months of planning, testing and organizing we are finally ready to start our adventure, and I am so looking forward to it all.

We now have nearly 200 participants on the PLRP team, and each year thousands of work hours go into preparing for our DeepWorker Science and Exploration (DSE) field deployment. Planning starts pretty much as soon as we end the prior year’s field program. This year’s deployment at Kelly Lake is no exception.

What’s in store is our most ambitious and operationally complex field program yet?

Throughout this coming week’s activities, we will continue our scientific exploration of microbialite rich lakes using such exploration tools as DeepWorker single-person submersibles and SCUBA diving. This research builds upon the work we have been conducting at Pavilion Lake, which is about an hour’s drive away. However, the team’s research doesn’t stop there. Our DSE program requires the integration of scientific methods, and operational and technological advancements. From these real field science activities, NASA scientists are learning about what it takes to conduct safe, productive and discovery-based science in extreme environments. It is this knowledge that will form the basis of future exploration concepts for human research voyages to such destinations as Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and Mars. With the end of the Shuttle program, this and other analog programs, such as Desert RATS and NEEMO, truly becomes NASA’s bridge to future space flight.

The entire PLRP is personal passion, so it is not surprising that I am extremely excited to get our 2011 field program underway.  But beyond the research, I’m excited to see the incredible scientists, engineers, operations experts, astronauts, and teachers who have become part of the PLRP family.  I’m thrilled to meet new colleagues who join us for the first time this year, and to thank the Clinton and Kelly Lake community for all of the support and assistance that they have already provided to the PLRP.

I remember when I was a kid that if something got me really excited I would jump up and down with joy.  Well, you know how it is, you kinda have to park that behavior through Junior high and high school, so I did.  But I find myself rekindling that jumping behavior these days each time I hear about some new finding or technical development or outreach opportunity that the PLRP team members come up with.  Happily, my NASA colleagues seem ok with me bouncing up and down periodically.  It is a joy, it is a privilege, to be part of the PLRP family. And I hope that everyone reading our blogs will feel like you are part of the adventure too.

What’s Coming Up on the EPO End

By Dana Lis – Education and Public Outreach coordinator

Just down the canyon and a little to the side, from Pavilion Lake to Kelly Lake – Welcome! Another year has flown by and I find myself heading east again to see some of the crew that I have had the pleasure to kick out of the kitchen over the past 5 years, and meet some new friends as well. This year I do not have a blue Volkswagon Vanagon or orange Westfalia jammed to the roof with food for the team. I am somewhat pleased with not having to drag a weighed down VW on a long road trip and am impressed with the minimal equipment necessary for my new position as the EPO coordinator. In less than 24 hours, simply myself and my mac-apple-mac laptop (and road bike of course) will step off the plane and into the 2011 field season.

When Darlene Lim offered me the EPO position my first instinct was “ I do sport nutrition, not twitter – no thanks.” Always up for the learning opportunities of a new challenge I accepted the position and have been mostly thrilled ever since.  Now I can’t wait to continue to share the amazing science and exploration activities of 2011 with you. This field season will be full of great discoveries, and will highlight some of the best space science and exploration activities that happen on Earth!

Not only have we expanded to a new location and new community, but we welcome some talented new folks: The JSC Timeliners/Robotics group, Liza Coe from NASA-Ames and Sean Maday from Google.Check their bio’s out here. Jessica Parsons from NASA HQs, Raffy Pendery from Studio 98 and I will be working hard to keep you updated from the field – with blogs like this one, tweets, facebook posts, photos, and videos from the team’s daily science and exploration activities. We welcome questions about our research through any of these channels, and will endeavor to answer questions from you as soon as we can! You can also submit questions to Henry Bortman through Astrobiology Magazine.

Stay tuned for some great media coverage by BC Magazine, Discovery’s Daily Planet Series, New York Times, Earth Periodical and much more. Thanks for your interest in our project, and welcome back to the Pavilion Lake Research Project at Kelly Lake.

Once I land in field camp I will update on the DeepWorker arrival, barge set up and the first DW flight of 2011. Keep checking in.

Sub Operations day 1

By Allison Bradi – PLPR science lead from University of Calgary

I’m sure many of you have heard the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Well, sometimes you learn the most when you take something apart and have to put it back together again. We knew that moving to Kelly Lake from Pavilion would provide some challenges and yesterday as our first day of DeepWorker flight operations, we certainly faced a few hiccups. The navigation software had a few bugs and wasn’t talking to the subs. This was problematic as it meant that although we’d still be able to get video from the subs, we wouldn’t be able to track them as they moved around the lake. One of our main goals at Kelly is to map the distribution and morphological variation of the microbialites at the lake and without the ability to track the subs, we wouldn’t be able to identify the location of images that are collected in order to build our map. But, the scientist pilots themselves are also a valuable source of observational information that should not be overlooked and so we decided to go ahead with the flight of at least one of the subs so that we could gather some input about the microbialites and proceed with our science. With that decision made, Sub 7 was away and happily exploring the eastern shore of Kelly Lake. The flight started off under cloudy weather but soon the sun cleared and it must have brought some good luck with it as the navigation software also starting working shortly thereafter and we were able to get tracking for the majority of the flight path. In the end, we didn’t complete our DeepWorker missions quite as planned and Sub 6 was unfortunately not launched. Sometimes science doesn’t go as planned and you need to roll with the punches, we learned a lot and Day 2 of the DeepWorker operations is expected to benefit from these lessons learned and is expected to go a lot smoother. Stay tuned!

Monitoring operations from the Mobile Mission Control Center (MMCC)

The science backroom team operations

By Jennifer Biddle PhD- Researcher at University of Delaware

I’m so excited to be officially joining the PLRP team this year as part of the science team. I got excited about astrobiology in graduate school and after my PhD, was a NASA Astrobiology Institute postdoctoral fellow. When I became a professor, I kept looking for ways to stay involved in NASA and astrobiology science. I collaborate with the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Penn State University and now am part of the PLRP team!

I typically do deep sea research, so the PLRP approach of using manned submarines is not too unusual to me. What is unusual is that we’re taking an analog mission approach to the science and exploration – complete with a mobile mission command center. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of infrastructure that the team has had to create in order to do their work, including setting up wifi in remote places and running video feeds across miles. Typically my research done on a ship has communications already on it – we just hop on and do science. Coming to a remote (and beautiful!) site in British Columbia certainly presents challenges.

Today I got my full immersion into PLRP science and headed up the science backroom team for the third dive in Kelly Lake. One disadvantage of a single manned sub is that only one person is seeing and observing things in real time. Maybe they can take a video, but the rest of us might wait hours to see it. That means decisions are slowed and science might be impeded. So this year the team designed a way to have a sub tethered to a cable, sending video feeds to the surface – and then the coms team has been able to shoot video back to the mobile mission command center. What this means is that many of us scientists can sit in comfort and see and hear what the pilot of the sub is observing. That way we can confer on what we are seeing immediately, add extra sets of eyes to a busy pilot and give advice or opinions on what is happening. Really what we did was sit back and go “Cool!” when a lovely microbialite would pop up on the screen.

We additionally got a true mission-feel when we started doing delayed communications. If an astronaut is off of the Earth, it takes a while to talk to them! So even though our sub pilot was only a few kilometers away, we gave ourselves a delay to see how things would go. Not surprisingly, it did seem easier – doesn’t your job go better when your “boss” stops interrupting you? But we’ll see how well it works when we actually want samples. Maybe 10 brains are better than one – maybe not! It’s part of this week’s experiments. My final experiments won’t be done for a while. We are collecting samples from Pavilion and Kelly Lakes to continue to describe the microbial communities that are in the microbialites. My group is specifically interested in the phototrophic (light-harvesting) communities, who we expect are driving the distinct shapes we see in these structures. Our work is in progress, so now updates yet – but watch for later updates as we start to unravel the mysteries of these beautiful and mysterious microbialites!

Science team at the Mission Control Room


Pavillion Lake, Microbialites, DNA and British Columbia

by Joe Russell – PhD student from University of Delaware studying Microbiology

Most days I do science in a bright, cluttered (yet clean), indoor laboratory. Right now, I am sitting on the shore of a pristine lake in British Columbia, waiting for samples of microbialites. Long days and late nights in lab is what you pay the piper for sample collections in beautiful, remote locations.

What I knew of British Columbia was what I saw during the Vancouver Olympics and a handful of nature shows. It was beautiful, with tall mountains, good skiing, and killer whales. What I didn’t know was how diverse and rugged the landscape would be. I flew into Vancouver and drove a rental car up to our field site along with my advisor, Dr. Jen Biddle. We passed through the city into tall snow-capped peaks covered in conifers. Beautiful, but about what I expected for BC. My expectations were quickly dashed. Lush forests spit waterfalls down into the Fraser River. Within an hour or two, the conifers gave way to more rock outcroppings, and eventually huge, sheer cliffs with rocks of all different colors. The vegetation changed to more bristly, desert flora. Winding streams worked their way through distant pastures, dotted with gnarled trees, horses, and cows; eventually all spilling into the Fraser, a constant throughout our drive. As we approached the town of Clinton, our base of operations for this expedition, the conifers returned, although this time in different arrangements. The dense coastal firs, spruces, and hemlocks gave way to more sparse cedars and ponderosa pine forests that populated steep, rocky canyons. Tucked away deep in the folds of these ancient canyons are two very unique and exciting lakes.

Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake are home to a fantastic display of microbialites. A fun, quirky, inspired (from what I’m beginning to see) group of scientists with a variety of backgrounds have descended on these lakes to study these structures because they may hold answers to some of the most profound questions we can ask. What did some of the earliest life on this planet look like? How did it survive and evolve? The fossil records show that for a couple billion years of our planets history, life existed similarly to how it does on the microbialites of Pavilion and Kelly Lake. If these structures were such an important first step in Earth’s life history, might they also be something to look for when we eventually explore other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond? As a microbiologist, with a strong interest in astrobiology, these questions floor me. To be here in this beautiful countryside searching for answers is what some refer to as “pinch me” moments.

My role here is to help understand the bacterial communities that live on the surface of the microbialites, and from what we can tell, drive their formation. I have spent the past few days taking part in planning and execution of submersible dives and sample collection. Once samples arrive at base camp, I extensively document what I see. Interesting features such as curious green and purple nodules that may be the site of carbonate formation on the surface of the microbialites are sub-sampled and examined under the microscope. Larger chunks of microbialite are carefully bagged and frozen for shipment back to the lab at the University of Delaware. There, I will extract DNA to study the microbial population of these structures on the genomic level to determine which members of this population are most important at different depths. This study highlights one of the unique attributes of Kelly Lake and Pavilion Lake. Microbialites are found in a handful of places around the globe yet these lakes are the only environment where they are found at such a variety of depths (thus differential access to light). It is our hope that these varying growth environments within the lake will be able to highlight distinct attributes of microbialites that made them so successful on early Earth and could possibly aid their formation on other planetary bodies.

Diving for Microbioliate samples