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Crew 104 Summary Report

Combined NASA-International Mars Society Crew Completes MDRS Field Season

Crew 104 Summary Report, May 8, 2011

The following is the summary report of Mars Desert Research Station crew 104, composed of scientists and engineers drawn from NASA and the Mars Society's international membership, which operated at the MDRS from April 23 - May 7, 2011.  This completes the MDRS active mission simulation field season for Spring 2011.  A MDRS engineering team has now taken over the hab for refit operations.  Active Mars mission simulations will resume in the fall.

Daily reports on MDRS activity have been posted at www.marssociety.org.  A complete report on this year's field season will be given at the 14th Annual International Mars Society Convention to be held at the Embassy Suites Hotel Dallas Texas, August 4-7, 2011.  Registration is now open at www.marssociety.org.

MDRS Crew 104 Summary Report

Dr Jonathan Clarke, Executive Officer

Seven people, four nationalities and one very busy rotation sums up the activities of crew 104, who have just completed their time at MDRS.


Crew 104 was the culmination of the DOMEX (Drilling on the Moon and Mars in Human Exploration) project.  The primary objective was to test a range of drilling systems to collect subsurface samples on targets identified during crew 83 and 92 missions last MDRS season, carry out preliminary analysis using a range of techniques and extend and infill geological and biological data collected during crews 83 and 92 at MDRS last season. 

The centerpiece of the operations were the drilling systems, the MARTE automated drill from NASA Ames Research Center, developed under contract to Honeybee Robotics.  Also used was a commercially sourced manually operated Milwaukee coring system and a “Backpack drill” (Shaw Inc.) coring system, using them to collect scientific drill cores in the context of a human exploration mission scenario.

Two drill targets were chosen for this season’s experiment, in a palaeosol and a channel deposit in the Brushy Basin Member of the Jurassic Morrison Formation identified by our previous mission (crew 92).  This former crew also sampled clay and sulphate rich targets in the area with the Backpack drill.

Samples were to have preliminary analysis done by the crew, including using the TERRA field-portable XRF/XRD machine (In Xitu, inc.) and the terrestrial counterpart of the ChemMin instrument that will be flown to Mars on the MSL/Curiosity mission later this year.  Other analytical techniques used for core analysis were DNA extraction followed by PCR analysis for microbiology and Permanganate titration with acid hydrolysis for organic content.

The geologists and astrobiologists also aimed to infill and extend understanding of Mars analogue aspects of soil mineralogy and microbiology and the spherical concretion-bearing inverted and exhumed palaeochannels in the vicinity of MDRS that were documented by crew crews 83 and 92 and recently published in the International Journal of Astrobiology (July 2011 issue).

Field program

No field program ever works out quite as planned, and crew 104 is no exception.  But despite various contingencies we were able to achieve all the main objectives as planned.


The MARTE drill was used to drill a core of fossil soil to a total depth of 63 cm.  This depth required two days of drilling.  This hole was in a palaeosol with well-defined root impressions and insect nests close to the hab.  Not that we would expect to find root impressions and insect nests on Mars, but we could expect to find fossil soil horizons in sedimentary and volcanic successions, and these features could provide visual, textural and chemical targets for imaging and analysis.  The cores were processed in the hab for DNA extraction, mineralogy and organic content.  We then drilled a second core next to the MARTE hole using the Milwaukee drill for comparison of its performance.  This manually operated drill performed very well and within a matter of hours drilled more than the MARTE drilled into two days.  At the end of drilling the first core with the MARTE drill, a mechanical part failed, and we spent two days diagnosing the failure.  However, it was determined that it was not repairable in the field.

We then went to a second site near Tank Wash on Cow Dung Road and drilled two further holes with the Milwaukee drill. The Milwaukee drill uses water for cuttings removal and bit cooling and an electrical motor to run the bit.  Downward force is provided by an operator turning a crank.  One hole was drilled with plain water as the drilling fluid and the other with water to which fluorescent micro-spheres were added as a tracer for contamination.  Both cores were more than one meter in length and were drilled into channel sandstones with calcite concretions.  Due to the fact that the sandstone is well indurated water, it did not percolate into the interiors and will be suitable for organic and DNA analysis.

Owing to the succession of the other drills, the Backpack drill was not used.  A few locations where it had been intended to use it we decided to use simple surface sampling instead.  One issue with the Backpack drill for biological studies is the narrow diameter of the core (approximately 12 mm), which makes it difficult to exclude contamination when water-based drilling is used as required.

Surface sampling and imaging

Extensive geological reconnaissance was carried out by Jon Clarke during crew 92 last season, leading to improved understanding of landscape evolution, fluvial facies and the formation of concretions.  A range of observations at old and new sites have been made that have extended and infilled on the earlier work and to more closely examine units beneath the Brushy Basin Member of the Morrison, in particular the Salt Wash Member and Summerville Formation.

We also took the opportunity to make observations further afield at Green River (inverted channels of the Cedar Mountain Formation), Angel Point (Navajo and Carmel Formations) and Horseshow Canyon (Navajo Formation). Samples were collected at most of these sites for organic, mineralogical and DNA analysis.

Several sites sampled during previous rotations (crews 83 and 92) showed unusual results with respect to organic chemistry and microbiology.  These were re-sampled using sterile and low contamination procedures and their geological context documented.

One crew member (Sarah Thompson) had a range of sophisticated camera gear and used these to photo-document the two drilling sites in some detail at very high resolution, mimicking the actions of an advanced automated rover.  These data, collected on behalf of Bernard Foing of ESA, will assist in planning imaging campaigns of the ExoMars rover.

Lab activities

Nearly all the geological samples have been analyzed using the Terra XRF/XRD, although the interpretation of the results will be done later.  Time constraints have limited our ability to use the Laser Raman instrument.

The rocks and soils in the MDRS area provide a diverse range of materials for the testing of technologies to detect organic compounds on Mars.  The rocks range from those that are naturally organic rich, such as coals and marine shales, to those that are naturally organic poor, such as oxidized sandstones and shales.  Mineralogies include sulphates, carbonates, quartzose rocks and clays.  Superimposed on the original composition of these rocks are the effects of weathering and soil formation.   Nineteen samples from the MARTE drill core and various soil and surface rock sites have been analyzed using the Permanganate titration with acid hydrolysis method.  In the core organic contents varied from 5 to 50 ppm, all very low.  For comparison petrified wood in the Salt Wash Member had 210 ppm of organic matter. 

Luisa collected samples for PCR analyses.  Samples were collected of core, soil and endoliths to test for DNA to use for phylogenetics.  She found no signs of microorganisms in the core.  This may be a processing issue, and she will improve the extraction methods back at Aveiro University in Portugal.  The endoliths sampling program yielded positive results, the meaning of which will require further analysis.  Microbiological analysis of soil samples will be run in Portugal, while the chemical analysis will be done at the VU University in the Netherlands.

Future activities

The mission work does not end with the completion of the mission.  Ahead of all of us are months of work finishing the analyses, interpreting the results and writing papers on the microbiology, organic chemistry, drilling operations and high level implications of the results.   Experience and data gathered during this expedition will assist in the design, planning and operation of future Mars missions, including ExoMars, which will sample the subsurface, provide a better understanding of the interaction between soil mineralogy and chemistry and microbial biota and its bio-signature and show how to improve the detection of past life on Mars and concepts for the diagenesis of Martian sediments and Martian landscape evolution.

Closing comments

This is my third crew at MDRS, having previously been part of crew 14 and 92.  While I feel I am getting to know the area better, much remains to be explored and done, both in the immediate vicinity of the station and further afield.  I look forward to future opportunities to work at this unique facility.  Crew 104 has worked well together to achieve diverse and complex objectives, and the atmosphere has been very good throughout.  It has been a great achievement by Carol, Sarah, Luisa, Jhony, David and Julio.  Carol, through her leadership, strategic, operational and tactical, makes the whole thing possible.  David, Sarah and Jhony, our intrepid engineers, ran the drilling solved problems and operated the hab.  Luisa and Julio, or “lab rat” team, whose astrobiological work was a key part of the rotation.  Lastly we would like to thank the tireless, but unsung efforts of mission support and of Don Lusko here in Hanksville, Utah.