NASA Ames Academy Crew
Completes Mars Desert Research Station Tour
February 13, 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.
Viola (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) – commander; endolith sample
collection, LAMBDA project manager
Beemer (Virginia Military Institute) – executive officer and chief geologist;
Mars Shelter geology project, LAMBDA science lead
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.
goal of the astronomy mission was to help restore Musk to functionality and
characterize its functioning.
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.
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.
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.
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