Icebreaker Remotely Operated by Schools

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!/on-air/as-seen-on/Pasadena-Students-Help-Operate-NASA-Drill/187231281as well as 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 if you’reinterested, as he’s handling the schedule coordination back at NASA Ames.

Introduction: Mapping Underground Faults and Fractures in Surprise Valley

Tucked in the northeastern corner of California, Surprise Valley is a quiet rural community of about 1,000, set amidst a vast high desert landscape dotted with hot springs and dry lakebeds. But there’s far more going on below the ground than you’d ever know, standing above. From September 1-13, a team of scientists and engineers will collect magnetic data using ground surveys and an aircraft that can fly without a pilot or crew on board, called an unmanned aerial system, or UAS, to map the geophysics below the surface of Surprise Valley.


Why create such a map when hints of the area’s seismic history are plainly displayed on its surface? The corrugated Surprise Valley Fault snakes 85 kilometers along the Warner Mountain Range, the landscape is pocked with smaller surface scars, called fault scarps, that indicate movement along faults, and hot springs billow steam–proof that the area is anything but quiet.





The Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft, or SIERRA, one of the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that the research team will use to collect magnetic data from Surprise Valley 



But although some faults and fractures are visible on the surface, some remain completely hidden underground. And even if researchers know where the hot springs are located, they want to understand how hot spring fluids flow through the network of pores and channels underground. Investigating this geothermal fluid circulation system includes identifying faults below the surface that might conduct the hot mixture of fluids and minerals found in the hot springs. These faults also have the potential to rupture during an earthquake, and the detailed studies will help refine predictions of how likely and how damaging earthquakes could be in the region.


Later, the team will compare magnetic data to topographic data they’ve already collected in order to correlate subsurface structures to areas of surface offset, or displacement from the fault center, which indicate active faulting. At the end of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)-led, NASA-funded project, which includes a second field session scheduled for next year, they’ll produce a 3-D map that will provide geophysical data on Surprise Valley at a level of detail yet to be achieved for the area. This map will be crucial for predicting the likelihood of earthquakes in Surprise Valley and the damage they may do. The Surprise Valley municipal government can also use the map to inform land and water use decisions, since toxic water zones have been identified in the area, as well to help tap the geothermal system as a sustainable energy source.  


The team, which includes scientists and engineers from USGS, NASA-Ames, Central Washington University, and Carnegie Mellon University, will measure magnetic fields using ground surveys and an unmanned aerial system (UAS) to map the geophysics below the surface of Surprise Valley.  Over the years, they’ve collected a wealth of magnetic data by foot and small, four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, or ATV. But the areas they can safely and feasibly survey on the ground are limited. They can’t walk through private lands, dense vegetation, or hot springs, for example. Geoscientists have typically addressed this challenge by contracting pilots to collect data along a specified flight path. Not only are these manned aerial surveys costly, they require pilots to fly at dangerously low altitudes. That’s why the Surprise Valley team will collect data with a small, lightweight, low-flying UAS known as SIERRA (Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft). While flying along a preprogrammed path, the NASA-developed SIERRA will relay the data collected by a magnetometer in its wing to a ground station computer. SIERRA is available for other research projects involving the collection of data from inaccessible swaths of land.  Scientists have already employed SIERRA in the NASA-funded Characterization of Arctic Sea Ice Experiment (CASIE) to assess the decline in the ice covering Alaska’s Beaufort Sea.


While SIERRA offers a safer alternative to manned flight, it still has some limitations. With a specified flight path, both manned aerial surveys and UAS run the risk of bypassing interesting geological features. Next year, the Surprise Valley team will collect magnetic data using NASA’s Swift “smart” UAS. The major difference between the two platforms is that an on-board system navigates Swift based on feedback it receives on both magnetic data and environmental conditions, such as wind speed and direction, or obstacles in its path. The system, known as an adaptive payload system, will integrate the magnetic data that Swift’s magnetometer has collected with magnetic datasets into an algorithm that will then “decide” how to adjust Swift’s flight path to maximize data collection in areas of interest.  The team will compare the datasets collected by the two UAS platforms with the goal of developing a cheaper, more effective airborne survey system.






The team preparing to test the all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), with the Swift UAS in the background



This field season, the team will run additional tests on SIERRA’s ability to correct for magnetic noise associated with the magnetization of the aircraft that would otherwise obscure signals arising from geologic structures we’re interested in. Faults and fractures generate magnetic fields that deviate from those emitted by regions of the valley that lack these features, but so do the aircraft and its maneuvers. SIERRA needs to subtract these readings to ensure that any anomalies that appear in the magnetic data reflect solely features below the surface. 


The researchers will then fly the aircraft in a broad zigzag pattern across Surprise Valley, collecting magnetic data from large features in previously unexplored areas. These data will be important in planning next year’s mission, when Swift will conduct more detailed surveys of the region. The team will concurrently test the payload system by comparing these data against the data collected by Swift.






Team members testing the ground base station systems. These include: the differential GPS, which will enhance the accuracy of the GPS readings of SIERRA’s location (left); the antenna that will relay information from SIERRA’s on board radio about the aircraft’s mechanical status and location (right); and the ground magnetometer (not shown), which measures the daily temporal variations in the Earth’s magnetic field due to fluctuations in the upper atmosphere. Researchers will subtract ground and airborne magnetometer data to correct for these daily variations and reveal the signals due to the faults and fractures they want to map.



While airborne magnetic surveys offer complete coverage of an area, there are still reasons to do ground-based surveys. Since a magnetic field weakens with increased distance from the magnetic source, aerial surveys can only detect large fields produced by the gross characteristics of a source below the surface. On the ground, researchers are able to pick up on the more subtle fields produced by a source’s smaller features. During both field sessions, the team will continue to collect magnetic data by foot and ATV in addition to UAS and will perform gravity measurements along some of the same subsurface structures.  They’ll also drill rock cores to measure remnant magnetization, a record of the magnetic fields at the time the rocks formed, and collect samples from the area to determine density and magnetic susceptibility, which is a measure of how “magnetizable” a rock is. These data will collectively be used to develop gravity and magnetic models to determine the geometry of structures below the surface.


The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping has already mapped Surprise Valley’s surface features, or topography, using airborne lidar, a highly sensitive technology that can make out even tiny features—visualizing objects and distances as small as a few centimeters. Lidar bounces a laser off the landscape, making a detailed 3-D topographical image. Unlike magnetic field data, which can identify structures below the surface but tells us nothing about their activity, lidar can distinguish active from inactive structures, since only structures that have been active in the recent past produce fault scarps and other areas of surface offset that would still be visible. Otherwise, erosion and sedimentation would have wiped them out. After tying surface offset to subsurface structures, scientists can develop models for the area’s seismic activity.


On this blog, also hosted at USGS’ website and Scientific American’s Expeditions we’ll share updates on daily missions, glimpses of life in the field, and profiles of individual team members. We’re excited that you’ll be joining us!


All photos by Melissa Pandika.  You can follow the Surprise Valley team on Twitter @SV_UAS, and view more photos of the team in action on their Flickr photostream.


About the Author: Melissa Pandika is a journalism master’s student at Stanford University.  Previously, she studied molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley and investigated how highly aggressive brain tumors evade therapies that block blood vessel growth at the University of California, San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @mmpandika.

Demonstrating Science

Ames scientist Kimberly Ennico wrote this blog entry on July 20, 2012 while working on a field test for RESOLVE, the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction. 

43rd anniversary of “One small step, One giant leap”
I write this after the conclusion of our multi-day field demo of the RESOLVE payload. Prior to any activity, as with all organized operational tests, a clear set of success criteria is identified. RESOLVE, having being defined by NASA’s exploration and technology divisions, has the following goals:
CAT 1 Objectives (Mandatory):
1. Travel at least 100m on-site to map the horizontal distribution of volatiles
CAT 2 Objectives (Highly Desirable):
1. Perform at least 1 coring operation.  Process all regolith in the drill system acquired during the coring operation
2. Perform at least 1 water droplet demo during volatile analysis.
CAT 3 Objectives (Desirable):
1. Map the horizontal distribution of volatiles over a point to point distance of 500m.
* Surface exploration objective is 1km
2. Perform coring operations and process regolith at a minimum of 3 locations.
3. Volatile analysis will be performed on at least 4 segments from each core to achieve a vertical resolution of 25cm or better.
4. Perform a minimum of 3 augering (drilling) operations
* Surface exploration objective is 6 augers
5. Perform at least 2 total water droplet demos.  Perform 1 in conjunction with hydrogen reduction and perform 1 during low temperature volatile analysis.
CAT 4 Objectives (Goals):
1. Perform 2 coring operations separated by at least 500m straight line distance
* Surface exploration is 1km
2. Travel 3km total regardless of direction
3. Travel directly to local areas of interest associated with possible retention of hydrogen
4. Process regolith from 5 cores
5. Perform hardware activities that can be used to further develop surface exploration technologies
At first glance, they are pretty much very operations based: 100 m (328 ft) here, 1 km (3,281 ft) there, three locations, three auger (drilling) ops, etc. They were the driving forces of this demo, no pun intended. Our main focus was to demonstrate the technology and the operations. However, as each day went on, you could hear on the voice loop the engineers asking more and more about what we scientists – those on site or in our “Ames science backroom” – were discussing and observing with each new scan, spectra, and image. Also, we actually found ourselves demonstrating science in this activity. That was the whole beauty of this project: science enabling exploration and exploration enabling science. Each team member, excited about roles played by others, united by our shared excitement in the concept of pushing our ability to explore beyond our home planet.
At the end of our field demo, we clocked 1,140 m (3,740 ft.) total in-simulation roving distance, 475 m (1,558 ft.) separation travel distance between hot spots, with total separation of traverses greater than 500 m. (1,640 ft.) We located nine hot spots, completed four auger operations, four drill operations, and four core segment transfers to the crucible (oven) for volatile analysis and characterization. We had seven remote operations centers plugged in to our central system. We logged 185,918 rover positions, collected 227,880 near-infrared spectra, 136,273 neutron spectrometer measurements, 139,703 drill measurements, 3,630 image data products, and wrote 2,446 console log entries.

Band-depth (a measurement of abundance) for a water band (at 1.5 microns) plotted for the whole simulation. Most of the water detected this way turned out to be “grass” in the spectrometer’s field of view, but we did rove over some pretty “dry areas.” Variety indeed. The red line shows our traverse path on July 19. (Right) Counts for the neutron spectrometer for the simulation. This aerial photo shows how we traversed over a range of geological features, a mixture of glacial (old outwash) and volcanic (olivine basalt) deposits. Image credit: NASA
While some of the ISRU technology demonstrations focused on pre-arranged drill tubes filled with pre-planned test materials, we were particularly excited to drill into the native tephra. Its saturated soil (up to 20%) is more consistent with the Mars surface rather than the lunar surface. If successful, this test also would show practical drill performance parameters for future Mars drill missions. The approved procedures allowed us to core down to a maximum of 50 cm (19.6 inches). We reached 45 cm in about 56 minutes. Then, instead of putting the sample into the oven, the core tube was “tapped” out onto the surface while the rover moved forward to lay out the sample for evaluation by the near infrared and neutron spectrometers. This was a new procedure developed jointly by the rover, drill, and science teams, which demonstrated a new way of extracting material and quickly evaluating it.
Artemis Jr rover DESTIN (drill) acquiring sample from native soil. Image credit: NASA
Ames science back room
The Ames science backroom team, clockwise from top left: Erin Fritzler, project manager; Bob McMurray, system engineer; Kayla La France, intern; Ted Roush, scientist; Carol Stoker standing, scientist; and Jen Heldmann, scientist. Not shown: Stephanie Morse, system engineer; Josh Benton, electrical engineer; and me – Kim Ennico, scientist. With our team of nine people we staffed three consoles in two shifts, for eight-days.
Ames science team members at computer monitors
Ames science team members in Hawaii. They were our main interface for the Ames backroom to the Flight, Rover and Drill teams, whose leads were in Hawaii, but whose support teams were at KSC in Florida, JSC in Texas, and CSA in Canada. Left to right: Rick Elphic, Real Time Science and Tony Colaprete, Spec. Photo by Matt Deans.
To end on a fun note: mid-way through the sim, I got my updated console request so I could monitor the neutron spectrometer and near infrared spectrometer simultaneously to look for correlations (this combination of techniques had never been done before). I spotted this one (image below) as we were roving about. Camera imagery had been down, so we were “in the dark” from visual clues. Upon seeing the two signals, I called out a strong hydrogen and water signal to the Science team in Hawaii over the voice loop.
Screengrab of one of my console screens. Top trace is the neutron spectrometer Sn counts showing a modest signal. Bottom traces are two different near-infrared water spectral regions that showed changes at the same time.
And it turns out we roved over this, a trench of water and a piece of aluminum foil reflecting the clear blue Hawaiian skies. The neutron spectrometer is designed to detect hydrogen at depth, whereas our near infrared spectrometer is more suited for surface water.
A test target along traverse path for July 19. Image credit: NASA
This target, like others we traversed over the past week (buried pieces of plastic, netting, etc.) had been dug out in the wee hours of the morning by other members of the RESOLVE operations team. Good way to get a few hours exercise after being cooped up behind monitors!
So what’s next? A “lessons learned” exercise is called out for next week. The different teams wrote down our learning points daily when they were fresh in our minds. We will review them as a team and move forward with the next steps – building a version that works in a vacuum. And our Ames backroom science team has identified a few science papers to write. We are excited!
For more information about the In-Situ Resource Utilization analog field test and the RESOLVE experiment package, visit

Welcome to Mission: Ames!

Welcome! NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., performs so many different types of research that at times it can be mind-boggling. We conduct a wide variety of science missions and send our world renowned researchers and their collaborators all over the world to conduct science experiments, collect scientific samples, observe extreme lifeforms, capture revealing images of Earth and its oceans from aircraft, satellites and other science instruments and record scientific data.

Researchers and their teams can spend months and even years preparing for these expeditions. They determine what is needed to accomplish their research during their limited time in the field.  Included in the preparations are writing grants to fund the field expedition, building their science team, acquiring the necessary equipment and developing a schedule of activities and experiments.  When they return to their laboratories at NASA Ames, the scientists conduct detailed analysis of what they have discovered, (which can take months and years in itself).  Finally, the researchers write detailed reports to share their new discoveries and unexpected results with the world.

This blog will provide an opportunity for our researchers and mission operators to record their experiences and lessons learned while conducting science experiments in the field. 


COAST: Successful second test flight!

Great weather allowed for a full two-hour flight test in which the full flight plan (including spiral maneuvers) was run through.  The pilot did an impressive job aligning with all planned lines.  All instruments appeared to be working well.  AATS tracking was problematic on aircraft turns — this was deduced to interference by an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) antenna, which was not needed and removed.  Satcomm communications between the hangar and the plane were unfortunately spotty.  One fix for this will be tried before our next flight.

Team choreagraphy for synchronizing all pre-flight procedures fell into place nicely today.  Take-off was at 11:29. A red phytoplankton bloom, though not as extensive as last October, was readily visible from the plane.  A whale (unknown sp.) was seen during the low altitude part of the flight as well as jellies floating and seabird flocks diving.

COAST: Introduction

The Coastal and Ocean Airborne Science Testbed (COAST) Project is a NASA Earth-science flight project that will advance coastal ecosystems research by providing a unique airborne payload optimized for remote sensing in the optically complex coastal zone

The COAST instrument suite combines a customized imagingspectrometer, sunphotometer system, and new bio-optical radiometerinstruments to obtain ocean/coastal/atmosphere data simultaneously. Theimaging spectrometer is optimized in the blue region of the spectrum toemphasize remote sensing of marine and freshwater ecosystems.Simultaneous measurements for empirical characterization of theatmospheric column will be accomplished using the Ames Airborne TrackingSunphotometer (AATS-14).  The radiometer system, designed and built by Biospherical Instruments, Inc., collects high quality radiance data from the ocean surface.  Dr. Liane Guild of NASA Ames Biospheric Science Branch is the principal investigator.