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Georgia Tech Crew Completes Mars Desert Research Station Tour

Crew 101 Summary Report

March 28, 2011
For further information on the Mars Society, visit our website at www.marssociety.org

The following is the summary report of MDRS crew 101, composed of scientists and engineers from the Georgia Tech, which operated the MDRS from March 12, 2011 to March 16, 2011. Crew 102, a team of international Mars Society volunteers, has now taken over, and will operate the station until April 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.

Crew 101 Final Report

It has been a successful seventh rotation at the Mars Desert Research Station for Georgia Tech Crew 101. Our history at ‘the hab’ has enabled us to prepare for this rotation for many months, utilizing the advice of many people who have already performed a rotation; but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what we’ve done while here.

We've had our challenges; but, overall, this crew has had a wonderful two weeks on 'Mars.' Personnel selection for Crew 101 began in October 2010. From a relatively large pool of student applicants, a crew of ten participants was eventually chosen. The crew prepared by holding weekly meetings to update one another on then-evolving research goals, and by participating in team building exercises, including a day hike, and a cold-weather camping trip.  These activities obviously pale in comparison to the preparations real astronauts must make, but the experience allowed the crew to grow close before making the trip to ‘Mars.’

By the time the final station crew of six was selected in early February, the crewmembers had spent hundreds of hours together, ensuring an unsurprising rotation, at least with respect to team dynamics.  The remaining four crewmembers remained at Georgia Tech to act as a secondary mission support team (behind Mars Society support, of course); they updated the Georgia Tech MDRS website, and provided support on experiments that were being run at the hab. They have remained an important part of Crew 101 and will likely form part of next year’s ‘hab crew’ (two members of Crew 101 were part of the mission support for Crew 93). Together, the ten members of Crew 101 have been working hard for five months in preparation for this rotation.

An important part in our preparations was planning for the various research endeavors that would take place ‘in sim’. Georgia Tech crews have a history of experiments  spanning across multiple years; as such these were the first source for inspiration in planning for this year. Crew 101 inherits two heritage experiments from previous crews. The longest running research activity is the incorporation of HAM radio into the rotation, which has been tracking Georgia Tech crew members since Crew 37. Also, areohashing, an exploration plan generator was imported from Crew 79. New experiments included a bacterial analysis and nucleic acid base study, as well as development of a polymerase chain reaction protocol led by Chief Scientist Christina Graves, and a geological survey of surface composition that was orchestrated from Atlanta by mission support lead Whitney Henderson. An EVA stress study and a dust contamination study rounded off the active experiments, while serious work was put towards both a wind turbine and an astronomy study with no avail. The crew has been pleased with the full scientific output of the mission.

The radio experiment had another successful year. During past rotations, the repeater (which extends radio coverage) has been set up on Skyline Rim, an ideal location for boosting signal, but the location is unreachable during sim. The crew this year decided to place the equipment on Radio Ridge, several hundred feet lower than Skyline Rim. This allowed the crew to set up the equipment in sim. The location further proved to be a good decision, when extremely high winds forced several repair EVAs. After the full extension of the antenna (eight meters), EVA crews were able to establish two-way communications to the hab from over five kilometers away.  This allows crews to confirm experimental procedures and report results in real time, ensuring smooth field operations, while also providing a significant safety boost during EVAs.

The geology and contamination experiments also went smoothly. The intention of the geology experiment was to characterize movement difficulties through various soil types and attempt to find a correlation between qualitative and quantitative test site properties and satellite imagery of the area. This would allow more robust EVA planning at the hab with more data of the environment at targeted areas. EVAs were taken by crewmembers to set up a test area, in which soil samples and qualitative descriptions of the area were collected.

While some collection EVAs were hampered by poor weather, a total of 10 samples were collected for analysis in the hab (a characterization of mass distribution between different sized particles). This analysis allows cross comparisons to be made with the contamination experiment, which tracked the amount and type of dust returned to the hab by crew members on the EVA. Based on soil characteristics of the target site, the amount of contamination to the hab can also be estimated. After further analysis of results, we hope these experiments can be elaborated on in future years to gather more data to help with EVA planning.

For previous crews, wet lab research has been limited, with most of the “pure science” research focusing on the geology and geography of the Hanksville area.  Most of the limitations to wet lab research while in sim at the MDRS in Utah have arisen due to limited access to instrumentation commonly found in a university or private lab (such as a PCR thermocycler and gel electrophoresis equipment).  As such, the development of protocol that can be performed without these types of equipment is crucial to scientific productivity while in sim.  While on site, Crew 101 Chief Scientist Christina Graves developed a polymerase chain reaction (PCR protocol) that could be performed on site, in sim, and without a thermocycler; this development will without doubt be useful for future crews.

In addition to the development of protocol, cultures were grown of microorganisms found in the soil of 8 different sites of interest.  Several bacterial staining experiments were performed, and DNA was isolated from the soil samples. Both colony PCR and PCR using purified DNA was performed.  Further analysis will be performed upon return to Georgia Tech.  Chromatography experiments (TLC) were also implemented during this year’s rotation.  While it is unlikely that there is any macrobiotic life on Mars, it may be useful to develop protocol to search for nucleic acid precursors (such as nucleobases) that may signify the correct ingredients are present for the “soup of life,” as well as to help understand the evolution of such systems on Earth.

In addition to scientific output, Georgia Tech crews are also very involved in scientific outreach with the community at large.  In an effort to expand our impact, the crew hosted a live web chat with NASA INSPIRE students. NASA INSPIRE is an internet learning community of high school students, of which several Crew 101 members are alumni. We were excited to share our MDRS experience with these younger students, and they responded with many questions about the concepts involved in Mars-analog simulation.

Outside of scientific and outreach pursuits, life at the hab was fairly easy-going compared to the hectic and busy lives we all lead as full-time students. Cooking with shelf stable foods was a challenge, but fortunately, our crew had a number of capable chefs, so life was quite comfortable.  The crew worked its way through a number of movies and all of “Firefly,” and in a GT crew tradition, several episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. By the end of two weeks, the crew will be thankful to escape the strict confines of the hab into the world of burgers and the humid air of the South, but crew dynamics allowed a relaxed  atmosphere.

Overall, it has been a great two weeks at MDRS. Crew 101 had its challenges, including inclement weather and equipment failure; but, the best was made of each situation. After all, without these challenges, it would not be much of a Mars simulation. These months of planning and two weeks in ‘sim’ have been an invaluable supplement to our technical educations, and we hope that Georgia Tech crews in the future can gain from this experience as much as we have.

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