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.

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.