ATTREX:Seventh week of work

Day41 to 43: A rollercoaster of emotions

After an unsuccessfulflight, we were ready to deal with the instrument to try to find a problem.

During three days I wasin a circle of happiness and disappointments. We performed several tests withour instrument which sometimes it worked fine, sometimes it crashed. We alsofelt the pressure of having our instrument ready in two days, just before ournext flight. So it was not the best way to start our week.

To summarize ourjourney, we took some parts out of the aircraft (computer, connections, andcontrol box) and all of them worked fine by themselves.  Just to play it safe, we decided to change theaircraft computer, assemble the instrument again and test it with an externalpower supply. The instrument also worked fine, but once we put the wholeinstrument back to the aircraft it failed. At this point, we figured outsomething could be wrong with the aircraft power, so we change our power zoneto another channel and the instrument performed well. Yes! That night I went tobed confident that the problem was solved.

The next day we triedto take a sample with our instrument just to prove that everything was in goodshape. However, the instrument failed when it was trying to open canister #1.

After several attemptsto determine where the problem was, we decided to jump canister # 1 and try tostart sample with canister #2. It looked like a miracle! The instrument worked.We kept going on testing the other canister, until we reached canister #11 andone more time the instrument died. We saw the same behavior for canister #31,and #41. So, something was wrong with the connections for the first canister ofeach module. One of our engineers checked the wires inside of the canisterconnections and found the problem: An electrical short with the connectorbackshell. YAY!!!! We fixed the connection and solved the problem for good.

GWAS is ready forflight!

A look of GWAS computer outside of the aircraft

Day44 and 45: Third Science Flight: A constant “heart attack” state

Here we are, February14th (Happy V-day!) around 9:48 am (PST) the Global Hawk 672 tookoff from Edwards Air Force Base heading to south of Hawaii. I have to confess,I was scared…would my instrument finally work and collect the 90 canisters weneed? Wow, I suffered the whole flight, I was sending the commands to collectour samples, but every time I pressed a button I felt like my heart stopped fora second. It wasn’t until I collected sample canister # 71 when I felt kind ofrelief (of course I was also tired. I was up for 19 hours straight and it wastime for me to go back to the hotel). Elliot kept working with the instrumentuntil the Global Hawk landed.  At thatpoint we got our 90 canister filled with air and ready for analysis. Yes, GWASfinally worked and we ROCKED! Great job GWAS team! I’m so proud of  working with you. I’m finally smiling again.

GWAS computer finally in action during a sample collection

Day46 and 48: Post-Flight, Data analysis and a well deserved break

This is exciting! I’mfinally looking at some numbers. Tons of numbers that provide temperatures, andpressure readings, times and locations of each sample collection. It is alot ofwork, but I never felt so happy. I also took the canister out of the aircraftand sent them to the lab for further analysis. Yes, what a great weekend.Besides, there was a programmed power outrage at Dryden so my weekend will be along one. I’m not only planning to take a look at this data, but I’m alsoplanning to go outside of base and have some fun with other members of ATTREXteam. First stop hiking at Tehachapi trail, then a trip to Sequoia National Park.  See you next week!

ATTREX: Sixth week of work

Day34 to 36: First Science Flight!

Pre-flight: done!

Aircraft: in runway!

ATTREX team members: ready to go!

Powerup…vehicle is moving…

YES!, On Tuesday Feb 5around 7:52 am (PST) the Global Hawk 672 took off from Edwards Air Force Baseheading to West Pacific Ocean. I was extremely excited, my heart was beatingfast and my hands were sweating…it was amazing to see the aircraft finally in theair! 

Two minutes aftertake-off, I started to warm up my instrument (pumps were on!), and 15 min laterI started to take our first sample…Yes, so far so good!!!

I kept sampling forseveral hours, but suddenly, when I was ready to draw some air inside canister33, the pressures in my instrument dropped…uh oh!!! What is going on…PANIC!!!This never happened before. I was glad that our instrument PI (principalinvestigator) was next to me, so he figured out that one of our pumps juststopped working.

Well, no more samplingfrom this flight (bummer!)…I was really disappointed, not only because I wouldmiss the fun of the sampling collection, but also, because I felt like Iletdown all my ATTREX team (In this kind of campaign, the data collection isreally valuable from other instrument teams since they can compare and validatetheir results)…but everybody kept telling me, and I knew, these things happen,and it is part of the science, which is based on precision and not onperfection (otherwise it would be so boring!).

Anyway, the worst partof this event was to know that we would have to stay in the Operation Centeruntil the end of the flight, yes,  24lovely hours doing almost nothing…just turning our instrument on (to keep it warmed)and turn it off for descending (remember, AWAS takes most of the power from theaircraft, and they need it during descending.)

Yes, what a night! Iwas only waiting for the aircraft to land to get inside it and determine thereason why my instrument had an unsuccessful flight.

A view of my instrument screen before pumps failed

Day37 and 38:  A little surgery for thepumps!

Ok, so my team hadaccess to the aircraft, and we found that indeed one of our pumps died duringflight. We took it out, opened it and found a frozen bearing. This is somethingfeasible, since temperatures at high altitudes are really cold. Thus, wereplaced the pump with a spare one (lucky that we packed it before coming toDryden) and reinstalled inside the aircraft.

To avoid furtherproblems and to verify our cold temperature suspicions, we decided to add a thermistor tomonitor the temperatures of the pumps for our next flight (yes, we scientistslove to know the reason for everything!)

Now, we are ready to goon ATTREX’s  second science flight.Preflight is done. Science meeting was held, and aircraft will be in air onSaturday, February 9th . Wish us luck!

GWAS pumps outside of aircraft. (pump # 1 guilty as charge!)

A little test before installing the new pump inside the Global Hawk

Day39 and 40: Second Science Flight: Here we go!

Yes, it is the weekend,but science never stops. Besides, someone told me that Global Hawk stands for Global Holiday And Weekend Killer (LoL!) and I’m starting to believe its true. Thus, are weready? Let’s Fly…

It is Saturday, Feb 9th,the Global Hawk 672 took off from Edwards Air Force Base heading to West Pacific Ocean and South to the Equator. I feltthe same excitement as I felt on Tuesday, although I was also worried about thebehavior of my pumps.

Well, this time Iwaited until the aircraft reached 40,000 ft. to start the pumps. So far sogood, the pressure reading was right, and temperatures were warmed. After 10min, I was ready to sample our first canister, so, I enabled the button tostart my sequence, but I did not see any response in my ground computer. At thesame moment I noticed we lost communication with the satellite, thus, I waiteda few minutes for it to recover.  Then,communication came back on, but my instrument was still in stand-by. Looking atanother screen I noticed there were no current values in our aircraft zone…uhoh AGAIN!!!, AWAS died one more time. But, this time was even worse since I wasnot able to collect any sample. My frustration reached a boiling point…howcould it happen? Did I miss-connect something during pre-flight? I wondered ifthe new pump thermistor working fine? Ohhh no!!! What a mess…

I decided to leave the Operation Center. I went back to the hotelwith tears in my eyes…I exercised, went out for a walk, talk with everyoneabout the problem just to try to vent my frustration, but it seems like it didnot work…I knew it was not the end of the world, but for me it was…Then Irealize what the problem was: I LOVE my job! And I care so much about it that Iwant it to do it well.

Well, here I am waitingfor the Global Hawk to land. The pressure is on. We will only have two days tofigure out what happened with our instrument and fix the problem before ourThird Science flight. Stay tuned.

(No picture here… )

ATTREX: Fifth week of work

Day27 to day 31: Scrubbed over so many reasons, but still having fun!

Wow, I do not even knowwhere to start. Last week I mentioned that our first science flight wascancelled due to bad weather. Well, this week we did not have too much luckeither. Our flight for Tuesday was cancelled for communication problems, andthe one re-scheduled for Wednesday was moved to the next day due to transponderissues. On Thursday we tried one more time, but now, we had synchronizationproblems between the aircraft and the ground station. By mid-morning theycalled the flight cancelled. Fortunately, this problem was solved after fewhours. So, the same afternoon, we came back to the operation center to set allour instrument computers, but just to find out that we would not be able totransit from Edwards Air Force to the Pacific Oceanon time…so yes! We were double scrubbed (and on the same day!!! just a newrecord!). Under this circumstance we decided to hold our first Science flightand schedule it for next Tuesday, Feb 5.

In the mean time, weare taking this bad patch with humor and doing something really cool! We wereshooting videos for the ATTREX Education and Public Outreach. Our film crew hasbeen wonderful with us. They are the most dedicated and enthusiastic people Iever met. Honestly, they have been really patient, especially with me, since Ihave to repeat my video many times! I bet the results will be extraordinary. Ifyou have not seen the video they already made for us, take a look… you will beamazed!

OurINCREDIBLE film crew (Diego Beltran and Rafael Mendez) and one of our Scientist(and model) Dr. Jasna Pittman

Film Crew in action!


Day32: ATTREX Student Visit (A day to remember!)

Without a doubt one ofthe BEST DAYS of my life!!!…How nice is it to share your experience withthose who are interested in your work!

Today, I had the amazingopportunity to talk about ATTREX with kids from the IndependenceHigh School (SanJose, CA) and El Camino HighSchool (South San Francisco).Our conversation was very casual. I talked about my experience as part of theATTREX team, tried to give them some advice about how to become a scientist;and the kids came out with interested questions about how to become part of us.In my opinion these kids have an enormous potential. They are smart, creative,and very eager to learn. I hope my talk gave them the motivation to keepchasing their dreams, be achievers and find success.

Here are some picturesfrom that day… Thanks for coming Chicos!

Some of the students from the IndependenceHigh School (SanJose, CA) and El Camino HighSchool (South San Francisco)

The students next to the Global Hawk

Wrapping up, and a day spent exploring

The NASA Ames-led Icebreaker team has finished its Antarctic testing, and team members have begun departing for warmer climes.  Two more team members leftthis morning, with just myself and Jackie Goordial (from McGill) remaining on the continent from ourIcebreaker drilling team. Our lab space inspection is at 4pm thisafternoon, and then bag-drag (moving luggage to Fleet Ops for checkingand weighing) likely tonight and hopefully a flight tomorrow (Friday)to “Cheech” (i.e. CHCH or Christchurch, NZ).

Looking back at last week’s field testing, here’s a “day in the field” as we wrap up this deployment. 

Peopleget themselves up out of their warm sleeping bags around 7 am, makethemselves breakfast (no cook, it is self-serve) start work at 9am, lunch iswhenever you break for it around 12-2pm, then more work (drill tests, digging, running instruments, surveys) until after 7pm, andusually someone then finishes early and gets dinner going. The day before, we bringdinner materials into the kitchen tent, so that 24 hours later it will be thawedenough to cook. I personally drink huge quantities of reconstituted orangejuice (a gallon, one day), as we had a big surplus, the air is very dry,  and McMurdo won’ttake returns of frozen foods.

2013 Icebreaker project base camp in University Valley, Antarctica.

We have a 2-burner campingstove… most things are made with hot water. We have a skillet,also, for (powdered) eggs et al in the morning and stir-fry or saute inthe evenings. Diet is heavily carnivorous and high-calorie. We havetwo main tents, which have little propane heaters, and people tend tocongregate in one or the other when not working outside. One is the”science tent”, where we have the drill control consoles, the other is the kitchen/dining tent,which has a center table used for food prep and meals.

One small crowded kitchen/dining tent served as a place to cook, for seven people to take meals, and to warm up.

There isno water for washing, we wipe our own plates with paper towels.Likewise with pots and pans. For encrusted food residue we apply handsanitizer to it and scrub. Water is only allowed to be used for drinking, and we ran out towards the endand had to melt snow for our drinking water. By the way, melting snow on a stovetop works muchbetter if one starts with a small amount of liquid water.

Sunscreen application is anafter-breakfast ritual, we remind each other. Given that we are/were under theozone hole and the snow reflects UV as well. My hands are grimy,despite wet wipes and hand sanitizer.

By evening, after dinner typically a couple of peoplechat in the kitchen, a couple watch a DVD movie on a laptop, and one or two work on the day’sdata on their laptops. Saturday night we all hung out together in thekitchen tent and polished off the rest of the liquid refreshments and told stories of past field campaigns.

Hydration is important… we nag each other. Likewisethe buddy system *and* carrying a radio, even if only going a fewhundred meters away from camp… the footing is loose, very rocky, icyand snow-covered… treacherous and slow going, hiking a kilometertakes an hour (!).

A week ago on 31 January, our team broke camp and pulled back to McMurdo. Here’s one of the pullout helicopters (Bell 212), landing next to a line of outbound cargo.

And I personally never tire of waking up in the middle of this awe-inspiring, icy, huge wilderness.

ATTREX: Fourth week of work

Day22: Pre-Flight

Today I’m getting readyfor my first Science Flight. On day 15, I described a little bit our pre-flightprocedure; but different from that time, we are adding some temperature logsaround our aircraft zone. The temperature logs are small devices that monitorthe temperatures wireless; and once the data is collected we can quicklydownload it to our computer.

For us, it is veryimportant to have a good estimation of the temperatures around our instruments,because there is a risk of freezing the canisters’ valves if temperatures reachvery cold values. Could you imagine this scenario?… it would be impossiblefor us to open the bottles and collect air samples. But, do not panic!!!! Rightnow we count with heater cables that keep our instrument warm. It’s just thatwe need to have a better idea of the ideal temperature to turn our heaterson  and off. 


Oneof the five temperature log devices we use in AWAS aircraft zone.

Day23: Science team meeting

Similar to what we didon day 10, today we had our Science team meeting in preparation for our firstScience Flight. As I mentioned before, we usually talk about flight plans,science targets and meteorological issues. But, today we also had theopportunity of seeing preliminary results from the Mini-DOAS team. It wasinteresting to hear how the instruments work (check Max’s blog if you want tohave a better idea), and see that their results from the range flight were inreasonable agreement with last year’s data. Way to go Mini-DOAS team!!!

 Today, we also were able to confirm oursuspicion…Yes, AWAS will be powered down every time the aircraft descends. Eventhough it is a little inconvenient for us (yes, we will have to be awake forthe 24 hours the flight lasts, as the instrument could need to be powered downat any time) I still believe it would be a wonderful experience. We can findout how our instrument behaves during sequential power switch, and how cleanour samples would be after each interruption. As I said it before, the beautyof our work is the fact there is always something new to learn.   


Scienceteam meeting (a lot of smart people together….)


MaxSpolaor (from Mini-DOAS team) showing how their instrument works.

Day24: First Science Flight (CANCELLED)

OMG! yes, there is noother expression…our flight was cancelled. We already knew that this could behappen, as the meteorological data from our science meeting showed theprobability of icy conditions. But, still we had the hope of a change to theweather, or at least, proceed with the flight but return before the conditionsdeteriorate. In any case, I felt that it was not meant to be. My heart wasbroken…but hey, at least I could go back to sleep and try to recover some“beauty” sleep. 

New schedule forflight: Tuesday Jan 29th, 2013…stay tuned 


Yes,it looks like we are not going anywhere under this cloudy condition…


The weather looks awful here!


Day25-26: More data analysis and Media day

The weekend isapproaching, but we still have tons of things to do. I started my day bylooking at some data from the chemical analysis of our canisters. Last weekendwe tested our new gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS), and here is thefun part: to calculate the area of the peaks provided by this instrument. It isa simple procedure since the location of the peaks and an estimation of thearea was previously determined by the software. We just need to double checkthat those peaks are the correct ones, and that the areas are calculated right(we need precision on our compound concentrations)

In the mean time, I gota little distracted because today was Media day! I was really impressed withthe amount of photographers, reporters and videographers who came to the hangar(yes, we are going to be famous!) The interviews were given to our principalinvestigators, and the hangar looked beautiful surrounded by posters about ourinstruments and missions. I am not sure where all these media presentations aregoing to be posted, but I would love to see them. If I find the information Iwill pass it along, so you can also enjoy the program.

My last news for today,and I believe is one of the most important, is that I’m going to take Sundayoff! I’m going to take advantage of this free day and go for a short road tripwith my colleagues from Harvard (Jasna Pittman and Bruce Daube). We are headingto Red RockCanyon and Mt. Whitney!!!…see!Not everything is work…There is also entertainment on the ATTREX mission.

GC-MS Data Analysis

Reporters during Media Day

Icebreaker Team Successfully Tests Mars-Prototype Drill in Dry Valleys

The NASA Ames-led Icebreaker project field team has returned to McMurdo Station, after deploying to University Valley, one of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, from 22-31 January.  Team members studied the sparse life in the soil and rocks as an analog for the niches that we might search someday on Mars for signs of past or extant life there.  Others drilled cores into the permafrost to study the past climate history here.  And we tested an integrated subsurface sample acquisition and transfer system that could feed future instruments or a cache to be returned to Earth for analysis. 

The Icebreaker drill was set up in University Valley first, on 23 January, and checked out.  Added to it was a mockup Phoenix-like spacecraft deck, with mockup instruments with inlet ports and a robotic sample transfer arm.  Remote commanding from Ames was possible through command encoding, compression, transmission (via Iridium satellite phone data link), reconstruction, and buffering (until read later and executed by the automated system).  With time lags and store-and-forward aspects, it resembled the process of relaying commands via the Deep Space Network.  The communications and the transfer robotics were set up and tested on 24-25 January.  On 25 January my co-PI in the umbrella Icebreaker project, Dr. Chris McKay, sent a command file from his laptop at Ames.  It was received here in University Valley about twenty minutes later, stored for three hours, then executed when the sample acquisition system came online.  Icebreaker drilled 20 cm, then the arm transferred powdery cuttings to the instrument inlet ports, and a command acknowledgement log was stored and later sent back some hours later to McKay.  This demonstrated remote automated subsurface sample acquisition, just as would be performed from a rover or lander on Mars.

The Icebreaker drill (center), with sample transfer robot arm (to left of drill, extended), and instrument
mockups with sample inlet ports (left).

Another goal of Dry Valleys testing was to exercise the control and automation software of the drill — detecting when it is getting itself in trouble, and adjusting its settings and actions to stay safe and continue to progress.  All five major fault modes came up naturally in testing (given the harsh environment) and were detected and addressed.  Including jammed bits, hard materials (or bit wearout), choking in its own cuttings, side-binding (usually due to a collapsed hole), and corkscrewing (like a stopper remover, the auger hangs and everything stretches).  Drill automation tests in University Valley were held near base camp as well as farther out in the valley in a previously-unsurveyed bowl-shaped depression. 

Team members (Glass, Mellerowicz) try to stay warm during drill automation
testing at the University Valley Mars-analog site.

Other team members finished their studies of climate change, and drilled (with larger commercial drills) to get clues regarding the subsurface populations of microbes at varying levels, as well as studying whether ice has been formed in the soil directly from atmospheric vapor exchange, vs. precipitation. 

Our team completed all of our goals and objectives for this field season, and took down camp and returned by helicopter to McMurdo on 31 January. Apart from cleaning and turning in field equipment here, we had two more educational outreach sessions today (2 February) with classrooms near Montreal and Pleasanton, CA. One more E/PO session will be held early Tuesday before the team closes up in McMurdo. 

2013 University Valley field camp.