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NASA Ames Academy Crew Completes Mars Desert Research Station Tour
Crew 99 Summary Report

February 13, 2011
For further information on the Mars Society, visit our website at www.marssociety.org

The following is the summary report of MDRS crew 99, composed of students from the NASA Ames Academy, which operated the MDRS from January 31, 2011 to February 12, 2011. Crew 100, a crew from the European Space Agency, has now taken over, and will operate the station until March 9, when they will hand it over to yet another crew. Daily reports on the activity at the MDRS are being posted at www.marssociety.org.  A complete report on this year's field season will be given at the 14th international Mars Society convention to be held at the Embassy Suites Hotel Dallas Texas, August 4-7, 2011.

Report of MDRS Crew 99, January 31 to February 12, 2011

NASA Ames Academy Crew

Crew 99 was composed of six students, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, who met during the summer of 2010 as part of the NASA Ames Academy. With a wide range of backgrounds in both science and engineering, we came into this experience with high hopes and a long list of projects.

The crew:

Donna Viola (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) – commander; endolith sample collection, LAMBDA project manager

Heidi Beemer (Virginia Military Institute) – executive officer and chief geologist; Mars Shelter geology project, LAMBDA science lead

Kevin Newman (University of Arizona) – chief engineer; LAMBDA engineering lead

Andie Gilkey (MIT) – HSO/chief biologist; SEXTAN

Sukrit Ranjan (Harvard University) – crew astronomer/journalist; worked with Musk Observatory

Max Fagin (Dartmouth College) – crew engineer/astronomer; GreenCube Project, helped with Musk Observatory

Additional support for the planning and development of the LAMBDA project was provided by Albert Jimenez (Columbia University), Alex Bogatko (University of Michigan), Ted Steiner (MIT), and Corey Snyder (University of Colorado, Boulder).


Crew 99 Projects:

Life Analysis and Metabolic Biological Detection Apparatus (LAMBDA):

LAMBDA was the primary experiment for our rotation, started during the summer of 2010. Originally designed for the production of electricity, Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) use the metabolism of microorganisms to generate current. MFCs consist of an anode and cathode connected by a conductive material, separated by a proton-permeable membrane. The anode is submerged in a soil medium thought to contain microorganisms. These microorganisms release electrons through metabolic redox reactions, which are transferred to the anode and travel through an external conductor containing a load to the cathode – thus creating a measurable current. Our experiment uses the principles of an MFC to detect life by comparing the voltage measurements of a soil slurry before and after being elevated to a sterilization temperature of 95°C – if the sample contained life, then the voltage prior to sterilization should be greater than the voltage afterwards. In principle, even non-carbon-based organisms should metabolize using redox reactions, so this technique could potentially detect extraterrestrial organisms with unknown metabolisms. The objective of our mission at MDRS is to use our MFC to detect life in desert soil samples.

Sample collection sites were chosen based on the potential for harboring microorganisms, primarily evidence of water flow. An initial test with the first sample revealed that some sort of agitation would be necessary to keep the slurry in suspension, and an impromptu mechanism was devised featuring a slight modification to the MFC device, a magnetic stir pill, and a stir plate. This proved to be effective.

Baseline voltage prior to sterilization of the first sample was nearly constant at 195mV. After one hour of sterilizing the sample at a temperature of 95°C, the voltage settled at 140mV. This decrease in voltage may indicate the presence of microorganisms in the sample! These results, along with experiments for the two remaining samples, will be confirmed using florescent microscopy after our return from MDRS.

In addition to the confirmation of field results using laboratory techniques, our experience with LAMBDA has revealed several design modifications that can greatly improve the ease of use of the device, including an agitation mechanism and minor software modifications. With further development given the field-tested lessons learned at MDRS, the LAMBDA project could be a viable means of detecting life in extraterrestrial terrain.


Mars Shelter Geology Project:

Due to radiation being present on Mars, settlers will most likely seek refuge under the earth. At first caves will be used; however, as civilizations grow and caves become filled, tunneling will be the next logical step. An important factor in any tunneling project is the roof structure holding up the tunnel. It is imperative that the rock structure is analyzed before a tunneling project begins. The easiest way to classify the geomechanics of a site is to use a rock mass rating or RMR (Bieniawski, 1972). This rating uses six parameters to classify rock formations: uniaxial compressive strength of rock material, Rock Quality Designation (RQD), spacing of discontinuities, condition of discontinuities, groundwater conditions, and orientation of discontinuities. These six parameters are given number ratings based on the conditions for each. The final RMR number is a number 1-100 and is the total of all the ratings combined. These parameters are based on field reports and the rock mass rating will tell the engineer the behavior of the rock, providing quantitative data for engineering design.

The unique geology of the San Rafael Swell allows for many locations in which tunnel-type shelters can be built for expansion during colonization. The purpose of this investigation is to calculate a RMR rating of good rock or better (61-100) for three possible shelter locations.

The three sites that were looked at are located at the following UTM coordinates respectively: 0518156  4250273, 0519731  4251449 , and  0520249  4251141. Based on the parameters above, a RMR rating of 63, 74, and 65 was determined from the three sites. These ratings all fall into Class II with a description of good rock and are candidates for future tunneling projects and further expansion for colonization purposes.


Surface Exploration Traverse Analysis Tool (SEXTANT):

SEXTANT is an EVA mission planner tool developed in MATLAB by graduate students at MIT, which computes the most efficient path between waypoints across a planetary surface. Explorers can be astronauts, astronauts on transportation rovers, or unmanned robots. The traverse efficiency can be optimized around path distance, time, or explorer energy consumption (the metabolic expenditure of astronauts or the power usage of transportation rovers). The user can select waypoints and the time spent at each, and can visualize a 3D map of the optimal path. Once the optimal path is generated, the thermal load on suited astronauts or solar power generation of rovers is displayed, along with the total traverse time and distance traveled.

One study was conducted to see if there was a statistical difference between the SEXTANT-determined energy consumption, time, or distance of EVAs and the actual output values. Energy consumption was determined by measuring astronaut mass, height, and heart rate along the traverse, using energy equations. The distance traveled was measured using a GPS. It was found that actual EVA time is significantly longer than SEXTANT-predicted EVA time (p<0.01). Differences in distance traveled and EVA time have not yet been analyzed.

A second study was done to see if mission re-planning, or contingency planning, was faster and less work when using SEXTANT in the habitat or in the field using an iPad. Time and workload measurements were collected for each subject under both conditions. Contingency planning took significantly less time when conducted in the habitat as opposed to in the field (p<0.05). There was no significant workload difference when contingency planning in either location, however temporal demand was marginally less when planning in the habitat (p<0.1). Every subject commented that it was a hassle to carry the mission planner in the field and it was difficult to see the screen in the sunlight. The SEXTANT mission planner will continue to be improved according to the results and the recommendations of subjects in this study.



The goal of the astronomy mission was to help restore Musk to functionality and characterize its functioning.

We measured the drift rate of the telescope by imaging M45 with the CCD on 2/4/11 after a 6-star alignment process. We showed a high drift rate of .35 ± .1 arcsec/second. We realigned the equatorial head on 2/8/11, aligning the spin axis with the NCP. We determined the NCP by looking at asterisms in the vicinity of Polaris. We imaged the region around Regulus and M45 on 2/9/11 with a 4-star alignment, and found drifts rates of around .1 arcsec/second near Regulus and .2 arcsec/second near M45. We are unsure why the two regions show different drift rates, but it should be noted that the image of M45 displays tracks with a slight shift in the middle of the track, suggesting the telescope was perturbed during observations and that we may overestimate the drift near M45. Regardless, further improvement is necessary for the telescope to be research-productive.

We connected the webcam to the telescope and imaged Saturn and the Moon. A note for future astronomers: it appears that to focus the webcam, one must go "out" direction from visual focus. It also appears that the diagonal mirror should not be used when imaging with the webcam. We were unable to focus with the diagonal in, but with it out we got great images. We were able to use the webcam and telescope in support of the GreenCube experiment.

The hand control is adversely affected by the cold, and often switches into Greek characters or goes blank. A long term solution would be some kind of heated glove for the hand control (heating and screen refresh usually deals with the problem). We are also trying to upgrade the firmware.


GreenCube 3:

On the night of February 10, we launched the GreenCube 3 payload on a high altitude balloon.  Designed as a meteorological platform by students at Dartmouth College, GreenCube 3 carried a GPS and a bank of high-powered LEDs.  The LEDs allowed the payload to serve as an artificial star.  The amount of water vapor in the air could be deduced from the apparent brightness of the LEDs, as measured by telescopes on the ground.

The intent was to have the balloon ascend to ~40,000 feet, then return to Earth under parachute, where it would be recovered the next day.  Unfortunately, prevailing winds ruled out a flight, and instead required the payload to be flown on a 300-foot long tether.

After the sun had set, the balloon was inflated, secured to one of the hab's ATVs, and driven out east of the hab.  The telescope at Musk Observatory was then trained on the payload, and the LEDs were imaged at multiple distances.  Even from a distance of half a kilometer, our artificial star appeared to be the brightest in the sky.  Images taken that night will be taken back to Dartmouth and analyzed, and GreenCube 3 will be ascended to 70,000 feet over the mountains of New England once the winds start cooperating.


Endolith sample collection:

The objective of this project was to collect samples of endolithic organisms for genetic analysis in the lab post-rotation. Endolithic organisms are microbes living just beneath the rock surface. Samples were collected from seven different sites within 5 kilometers of the hab, ranging from dry stream beds and gullies to sandstone outcrops. At some sites, samples of hypolithic colonies and cyanobacteria on the external rock face were also collected for comparison. Over the next three months, the 16S rRNA genes will be extracted using archaeal and cyanobacterial primers, and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE), a popular environmental technique, will be used to compare the genetic diversity of each sample site. Time-permitting, these will also be sequenced and analyzed to determine the likely species present in samples, and compare and contrast the diversity across spatial locations, environmental conditions, and rock type.


Immunosuppression study:

In coordination with Laura Drudi, a medical student at McGill University and a fellow 2010 NASA Ames Academy alumni, we also participated in a study on the effects of isolation on immunosuppression. This was done by filling out daily questionnaires and recording our temperatures three times a day. Laura will collect and analyze this data after our rotation.


Mapping Road Junctions:

Every year the roads and ATV trails in the San Rafael Swell get washed away. Crew 99 went on several area recons and recorded seventeen UTM coordinates of current road junctions for MDRS 10th field season. The compiled list is located on the Hab's computer desktop called MDRS Road Junctions.


We would also like to acknowledge the funding sources that made this experience and these research projects possible: NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, Maryland Space Grant, Arizona Space Grant, Massachusetts Space Grant, Virginia Military Institute, Dartmouth College, and Harvard University.

And, of course, a special thanks to the Mars Society for trusting us six college students with their hab for two weeks. Much appreciated!

For further information about the Mars Society, visit our website at www.marssociety.org