Author Archives: Brian Glass

Testing Robotic Life-Detection Technologies at the Rio Tinto Analog Site

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This month (June 2017), a joint collaborative team from NASA Ames and Spain’s Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB) have brought and successfully tested astrobiology and sampling technologies at the Rio Tinto analog site in southern Spain, bringing these closer to future life-search mission readiness. One of the current leading future concepts for searching for signs of past or current life on Mars is the “Icebreaker” mission concept, which would send a Phoenix or InSight-like lander to Mars with a drill, robot arm and instruments capable of detecting signs of life, similar in some respects and appearance to the system tested at Rio Tinto.

Under the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Moon and Mars Analog Missions Activities (MMAMA) program, the Life-Detection Mars Analog Project (LMAP) brought together in Spain a prototype 2m planetary drill by Honeybee Robotics, a 2m robot arm from MDA Aerospace (with an Ames scoop), and the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) immunoassay instrument from Spain’s CAB, all managed and run by Ames drilling automation and robotic control software. This robotic system was mounted on an aluminum full-size InSight lander mockup and operated autonomously at Rio Tinto during the week of June 5-9.  Rio Tinto, as an analog site, provides extremophiles living off the energy stored in a broad variety of target rocks underground, as we might find in places outside the Earth.

LMAP lander field testbed, showing its 2m drill, robot arm and the SOLID instrument, is tested at the Rio Tinto Mars-analog site on June 8.

Drilling a net 8m in 11 holes, the LMAP lander prototype autonomously acquired and provided pulverized sample material to the SOLID instrument, which subsequently detected several species of bacteria native to the Rio Tinto area’s unusually acidic (1.5-2.5 pH) soils. The robotic technologies demonstrated included fault detection and recoveries while drilling, precise placement and robotic delivery of small sample quantities (1-2 grams dispersed out of typically 50-100g), and operational real-time onboard planning and scheduling. “I was surprised at the smoothness and precision, it was really solid,” said Dr. Carol Stoker, the LMAP and Icebreaker chief scientist.

Scoop on LMAP robot arm delivers 2g of drilled sample into the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID) instrument on the deck.

The search for evidence of ancient climates, extinct life, and potential habitats for extant life on Mars, given the desiccated and irradiated conditions near the surface, will require drilling or some other form of subsurface access. By testing robotic drill and sampling systems together with prototype life-detection instruments to test the “ground truth” of organics and biomarkers found underground at an easily-accessible Mars analog site, the LMAP tests in Rio Tinto are an important first step.

Wrestling with field conditions…

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Working on an otherwise-deserted Arctic island the size of the US state of West Virginia requires patience and complex logistics. Delays are commonplace as flights often operate only one or two times a week using small aircraft. Resolute has had weeks of bad weather… our HMP-14 team had flights cancelled twice and spent two unplanned days in Iqaluit.

Stream appear during heavy rains around Haughton-Mars Project base camp on Devon Island.  A flash flood caused the camp to be temporarily isolated from the crater itself (uncrossable by ATV).

Streams appear during heavy rains around the Haughton-Mars Project base camp on Devon Island. A flash flood caused the camp to be temporarily isolated from the crater itself (uncrossable by ATV).

Once in the field, the travel delays have left us with a shortened field season, only 8 days long. And even that has been affected by a cold and wet summer, even some flash flooding that temporarily left HMP base camp isolated from the crater trails, until waters subsided.

Drill and robotic test camp inside Haughton Crater. "Drill Hill"'s impact breccia and permafrost make it an excellent textural analog for Mars drilling tests.

Drill and robotic test camp inside Haughton Crater. “Drill Hill” impact breccia and permafrost make it an excellent textural analog for Mars drilling tests.

Despite the delays, our team has persevered and set up the work camp at Drill Hill inside the crater, to test our prototype Mars drill and sample transfer arm. We have gotten a couple of gas samples for GETGAMM, and remain optimistic that we can catch up overall and still accomplish our technical goals.

Ames student intern, April Davis, furrows in concentration while reassembling a sample transfer robotic arm.

Ames student intern, April Davis, furrows in concentration while reassembling a sample transfer robotic arm.

HMP 2014 Field Team leaves for Haughton Crater tests

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Ames team members (Brian Glass and student intern April Davis) arrive in Iqaluit, en route to Devon Island, Nunavut.

Ames team members (Brian Glass and student intern April Davis) arrive in Iqaluit, en route to Devon Island, Nunavut.

An Ames-led group of six departed California, Tennessee and Grise Fjord during the last part of July, headed for Resolute, Nunavut and then a charter flight to the NASA field test site at Haughton Crater on Devon Island.  Team members for the current 2014 Haughton Crater deployment are: Dr Brian Glass, NASA Ames; Dr Pascal Lee, Mars Institute (based at Ames); April Davis, a student intern at NASA Ames; Bolek Mellerowicz, Honeybee Robotics; Jesse Weaver, Knoxville, TN; and locally Pauline Akeeagok from Grise Fjord.

Haughton Crater is a 20-km diameter impact structure with well-preserved beds of ice-cemented impact breccia, and is considered an excellent-fidelity Mars-analog site. Team members will gather gas samples to acquire more data on concentration and carbon isotopic composition for both methane and carbon dioxide collected from sniffer drill strings, for assessing both the flux and source of background methane emission from bedrock in the Arctic.  A new rotary-percussive planetary-prototype drill will be put through its paces at the Haughton Crater “Drill Hill” breccia site inside the crater.

For  the past decade a series of SMD-funded projects have advanced the technology readiness of both planetary drills and the automation needed to operate them at significant lightspeed communication distances from Earth.  Drilling will be needed to access the Martian subsurface at depths of 1 meter or greater, and to penetrate the ice layers found by the Phoenix mission at the poles.  It is the best means to retrieve samples from regions on Mars that could possibly harbor life now or in the past, and is a needed sample acquisition technology for multiple mission concepts proposed for 2020 and onward. The most recent generation of Mars-prototype robotic drills is the Icebreaker-3 rotary-percussive drill (see photo), which was tested in laboratory conditions this June at Honeybee Robotics in Pasadena. Its predecessor, the Life In The Atacama (LITA) drill, was tested at Haughton Crater in August 2013 (see earlier Mission:Ames posts) but lacked sufficient torque and shaft stiffness to make any significant penetration into the ice-cemented impact breccia at Drill Hill.  Earlier, heavier drill designs were capable of successfully drilling to 1-3m at the site with the same drilling technology,  but are too heavy to propose on an early-2020s Mars mission.

The current GETGAMM ASTEP project (by Indiana, GSFC, JPL, and Honeybee Robotics; Dr Lisa Pratt, PI) uses deeply eroded Paleoproterozoic bedrock in southwestern Greenland as an analogue for Mars. In a three-year field campaign, the project has analyzed seasonal and diurnal variation in the concentration and isotopic composition of methane, ethane, and hydrogen sulfide in bedrock boreholes.  GETGAMM has also used a copy of Honeybee’s “Life in the Atacama” (LITA-1) ASTEP-developed drill to drill 1-2m boreholes for monitoring.  Unlike most drilling scenarios for planetary missions, however, GETGAMM jettisons its drill strings in each borehole rather than bringing them back up for other holes – requiring many drill strings, which serve as emplaced shaft casings to keep holes open for subsequent gas monitoring.

In addition to its extensive Greenland field work, GETGAMM in the summer 2013 field season placed and sealed two monitoring drill strings at Haughton Crater (HMP Sites 2 and 3) which remain there currently (see photo).

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Methane (CH4) emissions on Earth are predominantly derived from thermal cracking of ancient organic matter in the deep subsurface or from microbial methanotrophic metabolism in low-salinity aquatic environments such as wetlands and lakes.  Although seasonal methane emissions from wetlands and lakes in Arctic regions are starting to be reported, there is virtually no published data on background methane emissions from unvegetated zones of fractured bedrock where methane could originate from underlying sedimentary strata or from adjacent wetlands and lakes.   GETGAMM study sites in Greenland (visited by Indiana University this past April) and the current deployment to Haughton Crater provide an opportunity to compare methane emissions from Archean-crystalline versus Paleozoic-sedimentary bedrock using perforated drill rods (sniffers) installed down to depths of 1 to 2 meters below the surface.

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Ames-led team tests new planetary-prototype drill at Haughton Crater

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The Icebreaker project team deployed from Resolute to Haughton Crater on Devon Island on August 12, catching the last remnants of favorable Arctic weather in time to set up our test site at Drill Hill in the crater.  A good thing, as the weather immediately worsened…  ten days of below-freezing temperatures, high winds and snowfall followed.  It was in some respects more logistically challenging than the University Valley tests with a different drill, last January in Antarctica (see earlier Mission:Ames posts).

Our NASA-Honeybee Robotics team persevered, despite snow drifts that made it difficult on quads to reach the test site, and icing that periodically brought down communications.  We tested the new Icebreaker-2/LITA drill, on an equal footing with other planetary-prototype drills tested at Drill Hill since 2004.  It cumulatively went 3.2m depth over 4 holes… but found that the lightweight, low mass, low-downward-force design did not fare well in frozen breccia, with its deepest hole reached at 90 cm, where it stuck.  Previous tested drill prototypes (with 3x the mass and more power) managed 1.5-3m depths under similar conditions at the same site.  Given that this new drill was originally designed only for half-meter deep sampling from a mobile platform, it met expectations.  And this is a successful test result — even if this drill design didn’t go deeper.  It shows us where we are on the (light-weight/low-energy) vs (depth into hard materials) tradeoff here, compared to competing designs and concepts, and this is needed and useful for future drilling mission proposals and planning.

Alex Wong from Honeybee Robotics sets up the Icebreaker-2 drill inside a dome tent on Drill Hill.

Alex Wong from Honeybee Robotics sets up the Icebreaker-2 drill inside a dome tent on Drill Hill.

Opportunistically, our team also sank three sniffer-shafts for the GETGAMM project (see last post), two with a commercial rotary-percussive hand drill (to 2m depths) and one with Icebreaker-2 (to 80cm).  We drew cuttings and gas samples to carry back to NASA Ames and then to forward to Lisa Pratt and her team at Indiana University.  The two 2m-deep monitoring stations remain on Devon Island for future monitoring and sampling.

GETGAMM project gas-monitoring drill string, being sunk into the area known as Von Braun Planitia near Haughton Crater.

GETGAMM project gas-monitoring drill string, being sunk into the area known as Von Braun Planitia near Haughton Crater.

We closed up the Haughton Crater camp on 21 August, packed our equipment in Resolute for shipment back to the USA and NASA Ames, and left the Arctic for Yellowknife and home over this past weekend.

The Icebreaker-2 drill 2013 field test team, outside the Drill Hill dome tent in Haughton Crater: Alex Wang from Honeybee Robotics, and Brian Glass and Sarah Huffman from NASA Ames.

The Icebreaker-2 drill 2013 field test team, outside the Drill Hill dome tent in Haughton Crater: Alex Wang from Honeybee Robotics, and Brian Glass and Sarah Huffman from NASA Ames.

Icebreaker Team deploys to Haughton Crater

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For the past decade a series of Science Mission Directorate (SMD)-funded projects have advanced the technology readiness of both Mars-prototype drills and the automation needed to operate them at significant lightspeed communication-lag distances from Earth. Drilling will be needed to access the Martian subsurface at depths of 1 meter or greater, and to penetrate the ice layers found by the Phoenix mission at the poles. It is the best means to retrieve samples from regions on Mars that could possibly harbor life now or in the past, and is a core sample acquisition technology for multiple mission concepts. A photograph shows both the Icebreaker-1 rotary-percussive drill and its sample transfer arm, in the context of July 2012 Arctic tests at Haughton Crater. The Deployable Automation Technologies (DAT) group at NASA Ames with Honeybee Robotics conducted sample acquisition and drilling automation field tests with Icebreaker-1 in July 2012 (Haughton Crater) and January 2013 (University Valley, Antarctica).

The Icebreaker-1 rotary-percussive Mars-prototype drill with its sample-transfer arm, in July 2012 tests at Haughton Crater's Drill Hill.

The Icebreaker-1 rotary-percussive Mars-prototype drill with its sample-transfer arm, in July 2012 tests at Haughton Crater’s Drill Hill.

The current GETGAMM project (led by PI Lisa Pratt at Indiana University, with GSFC, JPL, and Honeybee Robotics) uses deeply eroded Paleoproterozoic bedrock in southwestern Greenland as an analogue for Mars. In a three-year field campaign, the project analyzes seasonal and diurnal variation in the concentration and isotopic composition of methane, ethane, and hydrogen sulfide in bedrock boreholes. See http://www.indiana.edu/~geosci/pratt/getgamm/index.html . GETGAMM is using the Icebreaker-2/LITA drill to drill arrays of 1-2m boreholes for gas monitoring. The Icebreaker-2 drill itself is derived from the Honeybee Robotics Icebreaker-1 drill, but uses a lighter frame with smaller motors to reduce fielded mass from 32kg (Icebreaker-1) to 9.6kg (Icebreaker-2/LITA).

The Life In The Atacama (LITA) or Icebreaker-2 drill is a smaller, lighter 10kg Mars-prototype drill derived from the 33kg Icebreaker-1 rotary-percussive drill system.

The Life In The Atacama (LITA) or Icebreaker-2 drill is a smaller, lighter 10kg Mars-prototype drill derived from the 33kg Icebreaker-1 rotary-percussive drill system.

Since an Icebreaker-2 drill was already built and would already be available in the Arctic this summer, the DAT group at Ames proposed to use it for other tests after GETGAMM concluded its season in mid-July. “This allows us to cheaply and quickly get additional baseline drill performance data at a common analog site (Haughton Crater) at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated field test,” said Dr. Brian Glass, DAT group lead at Ames. This data will be invaluable for future study, development of drill fault detection and automation software, and for comparison to other prototype drill baselines (for future Mars sample acquisition mission design and trade studies).
After receiving approval of this opportunistic proposal from SMD, the DAT group and Honeybee have put together over two months a field deployment of Icebreaker-2 to test at Haughton. A group of three left California on Friday, August 9, arrived at Resolute on August 10 and arrived at Haughton Crater on Devon Island on August 12. They are currently testing the latest Icebreaker-2 model at the same “Drill Hill” site as was used to test three earlier drills in 2004-12: DAME, CRUX and Icebreaker-1. In collaboration with the GETGAMM project, the Icebreaker team will also sink several gas-sampling shafts and gather samples for GETGAMM’s use from Devon Island, supplementing the Greenland data.

The Icebreaker team's drill test camp, set up in August 2013 at "Drill Hill", a massive impact breccia deposit within Haughton Crater.

The Icebreaker team’s drill test camp, set up in August 2013 at “Drill Hill”, a massive impact breccia deposit within Haughton Crater.

Wrapping up, and a day spent exploring

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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.

Icebreaker Team Successfully Tests Mars-Prototype Drill in Dry Valleys

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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. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Visits Icebreaker Drill

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One of the most frustratingly valuable aspects of testingand working in extreme environments is that nature is unpredictable, out ofhuman control, and hence likely to create unexpected problems and opportunities.  Today, that led to postponed tests buta chance to brief the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, who with hiswife Bronagh Key had themselves planned to go today to the South Pole. 

However, this morning featured 25F/-4C temperatures, 20ktwinds with powdery snow (we now have about 8 in on the ground) and lowvisibility, so both air travel and our tests outside camp were scratched. Thisled the PM and his entourage to visit the science (Crary) lab facility thismorning. 

Team members (Glass, Marinova) brief the Rt. Hon. John Key and his wife Bronagh during their tour of Crary Lab today.

We struggled to get our morning E/PO done, given the weatherconditions and an unexpected software problem.  We recovered in time for a Santa Rosa, CA charter school andits students (mostly homeschooled) to operate the Icebreaker drillremotely.  An article is in theSanta Rosa Press-Democrat (http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20130118/ARTICLES/130119457/1350?Title=Hands-on-look-at-a-mission-to-Mars). Since we had gotten the drill running for the students, it was easy toremove the tarps and do a show-and-tell 90 minutes later for the Rt. Hon. Mr.Key.  It helped that we were thelast stop on his laboratory tour, as there was some time left forquestions. 

In challenging working conditions, Bolek Mellerowicz configures the Icebreaker drill control software for an educational outreach session this morning, prior to removing the tarp protecting the drill. 

Hence weather frustrated our original plans… but also createda unique opportunity, as long as we could be flexible and adapt to changingcircumstances (in the best NASA traditions).  

Icebreaker Remotely Operated by Schools

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One of NASA’s goals, in addition to furthering humanity’sreach in aeronautics and space, is to educate and foster interest in science,mathematics and engineering by the next generation.  A small percentage of every funded research proposal istypically targeted at “Education and Public Outreach”, or E/PO. 

One of the ways that the Icebreaker team is reaching out tothe next generation is through live video sessions with school classrooms.These include audience-tailored briefs by team members, given live fromAntarctica, with classroom questions and answers.  And… we let the students remotely operate the Icebreakerdrill, here in McMurdo, from their classroom.  This often gets a lot of enthusiastic responses fromschoolkids. 

While half of the Icebreaker team is already in UniversityValley doing science, here in McMurdo we are finishing drill checkouts, minormaintenance and doing E/PO back to the US.  Three days ago we did our first hour-long session with an Arizonahigh school (Verde Valley HS, near Flagstaff).  We managed this despite repairing a broken wire on the drillthat had us working behind the scenes, while live, and outdoors in high 30ktwinds and blowing snow.  Two daysago we did three sessions:  with amiddle school in New York City; another group of mostly-Native American (Yavapai-Apache) 6thgraders at an Arizona school; and with a group of mostly Vietnamese and Hispanic kids at an elementary school in south San Jose,CA.  

Classroom view from Meadows Elementary, San Jose, CA (Glass, Marinova). [courtesy L. Haven]

Yesterday  wedid four sessions, with the first two in Pasadena, CA:  Jackson Elementary and Eliot MiddleSchool.  The first session includedlocal Los Angeles media coverage (see NBC http://www.nbclosangeles.com/video/#!/on-air/as-seen-on/Pasadena-Students-Help-Operate-NASA-Drill/187231281as well as http://altadena.patch.com/articles/altadena-students-help-control-nasa-mars-drill-antarctica-jackson-elementary-school-pasadena-unified-school-district#video-12998220). Followed by a school in Pleasanton, CA and then a link to a company who hadexpressed interest (SpaceX, in Los Angeles). 

We have one more E/PO session scheduled this week (tomorrowat 11am PT, 8am Saturday for us) with a charter school in northern California(Santa Rosa).  Then we will finishdrill and robotics testing near McMurdo this weekend before we join the rest ofour colleagues in University Valley. Two team members (Marinova and Goordial) will leave for there tomorrow,after the E/PO session. 

Explaining drill hammer actuation to a Pasadena middle school (Mellerowicz, Marinova).

We are tentatively planning a few E/PO sessions afterreturning in early February from University Valley, most likely on 4 February(PT).  Contact chris.mckay@nasa.gov if you’reinterested, as he’s handling the schedule coordination back at NASA Ames.

Happy Camper for Icebreaker members

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Not everyone who arrives in Antarctica has had cold-weathercamp experience, or training in risk assessment and safety when workingoutdoors in extreme weather conditions. And the US Antarctic Program has its own procedures (and harsherconditions) for outdoor safety.  Soanyone doing field work is required to take “Snowcraft I” training,colloquially called “Happy Camper,” before being cleared for fielddeployments. 

While the Icebreaker team all reached McMurdo Station byJanuary 7, our instruments and equipment were still in Christchurch, due to thesame flight backlog that delayed our deployment south.  So we hurried to take the January 8-9class while waiting for our project gear to arrive (it showed up onSaturday). 

We started with two hours of classroom instruction…  risk assessment, clothing choices,weather hazards, and recognizing hypothermia and frostbite symptoms.  Then we packed our sleep kits, food, tents,and stoves and headed out on to the Ross Ice Shelf.  Wearing our parkas, sunglasses (to avoid snow blindness) andsnow boots.  We had lunch at the“I-Hut” and hands-on instruction in camp stove lighting and maintenance.  Then grabbed our bags and trudged abouta kilometer away from the I-Hut to a bare expanse of snow.

View looking back at our campsite, with Mt. Erebus in the background.

There we set up camp… initially shown by our instructorshow to set up Scott expedition tents and mountaineering tents, and how to makedeadfalls in the snow to anchor guy lines.  And snowcraft… cutting half-meter cubes of snow usingsaws, sledges to pull these to make a meter-high wind wall protecting ourtents.  We dug out a kitchen/diningarea, complete with snow benches (foam laid on top, for comfortableseating).  And how to dig grave-likesnow trenches, 1.5m deep and wide enough for a person’s sleeping bag.  Then… the instructors departed to theI-Hut, and our group of 14 was on its own overnight.  It was great! Mt. Erebus in the distance, snow sawing, warm cocoa…  half of our group slept in snowstructures they built, including two women who built an igloo and two men whoexcavated an underground snow cavern complete with a small kitchen. 

Our camp, including the snow wall (behind tents), kitchen, and dug out snow trenches (below surface). Flags mark trenches and hazards. 

The next morning, we took down our camp and were ready forthe 8:30am return of our instructors. We went back to the I-Hut and studied VHF and HF radio operations andprotocols, the contents of survival bags, and ran a couple of emergencyscenarios (my favorite was the white-out search and rescue scenario,  when anyone going out had to be ropedand wear a white bucket over their head). 

8-9 January 2013 Snowcraft I, “Happy Camper” field safety training class group.

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