Special Coverage from the 2006 Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition
Posted by Jake Maule
22-08-2006 18:40 CDT
Topics: Earth analogs
The 2006 expedition lasted from August 8 to 22. Throughout the expedition, we heard from Jake Maule, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was the lucky one to work in the spacesuit.
During AMASE 2006, researchers tested a modified Mark III spacesuit replica. Although the test suit is lighter than the original Mark III, it is still quite heavy on Earth -- about 35 kilograms (75 pounds). Expedition team member Jake Maule donned the suit to practice working with science instruments while wearing the cumbersome (although life-preserving) outerwear.
Before taking it out in the field, astrobiologists sterilized and tested the suit and then tested again afterward to see what contaminants, including from the wearer, were brought back with the suit. Scientists also observed how the sterilization process affects the joints of the suit as well as watched for any damage or deterioration that may happen during fieldwork. They also tested the ability to manipulate sterile sample containers without contaminating them -- a necessary procedure that needs to be worked out if humans are to search for life on Mars.
Engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also tested a highly capable rover designed to safely maneuver cliff faces. The "cliff bot" may one day be used in concert with astronauts, so our human explorer at the Mars analog site practiced how to best to coordinate human and robotic activities. While testing the spacesuit, researchers also be tried out new tools for communication and data logging, such as a wearable computer, throat microphone, and digital display.
Testing the spacesuit and the cliff bot were just two of the many objectives that the 2006 expedition team wanted to achieve. Two instruments headed for Mars on the planned Mars Science Laboratory mission -- the CheMin X-ray Diffraction/X-ray Fluorescence (XRD/XRF) instrument used for mineralogical analysis and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer used for atmospheric analysis -- were tested to see how they perform in the frigid environment and were used to develop protocols to search for organics. Team members also tested the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer being developed for future missions. Additionally, some team members were developing new astrobiological instruments using modern microbiological forensic techniques. One of these instruments, the Lab-on-a-Chip, is set to fly on an upcoming shuttle mission to test for molds and pathogens on the International Space Station.
July 30, 2006
My work in astrobiology and human space flight programs has encouraged me to identify crossovers that benefit both sides. This is especially important now that NASA has been given a mandate to return humans to the Moon between 2015-2020 in preparation for the exploration of Mars. The Moon offers an ideal "field site" to test procedures for the detection of life and avoidance of forward contamination (transfer of biological material from Earth to other planets and moons) associated with human exploration and technology developed in astrobiology has much to offer the human space program.
Just as the Apollo astronauts were trained in field geology, current and future astronauts destined for the moon should also be trained in field microbiology. Field microbiology in space is a major challenge given the harsh environment and difficulties associated with working from within a spacesuit, such as restricted vision, dexterity and body movement. As a first step toward this type of training in “space field microbiology”, we will perform microbiological analysis during extra-vehicular activity (EVA, or "spacewalk") in the Mars analog site of Spitsbergen, in the Arctic in August 2006 and later in the lunar analog environment of Cinder Lakes, Arizona in September 2006.
Work at the Mars Analog site will be part of the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE), led by Andrew Steele. We will use the lunar prototype spacesuit developed at NASA JSC, known as the Mark III, and will integrate with various robotic activities planned by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Working in such a breathtaking landscape is incredible, but I have yet to experience it from inside a spacesuit! I look forward to sharing this experience with you and describing the joys and challenges of the work ahead.
August 4, 2006
I arrived in Longyearbyen today. This is the main city of Svalbard. The flight to get here is in a regular 737-type commercial aircraft, taking around 90-minutes from Tromso, a city 550 kilometers (330 miles) to the south on the Norwegian mainland. Looking out of the window on the flight, all I could see was a blanket of cloud, with occasional glimpses of Arctic Ocean. I thought briefly of Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer and first to the South Pole in 1911, who perished in a seaplane over this same stretch of water in 1928 in an effort to rescue his Italian colleague and friend Frank Nobile stranded near the North Pole.
Then, coming in over Spitsbergen (meaning "pointed mountains"), the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, I could see the jagged peaks of mountains above the cloud layer at about 3,000 feet. During the approach, we descended beneath the cloud layer to see the red-brown hillsides of Isfjorden partially covered with snow. Not a lot of huge vegetation here, although there are trees here called dwarf willow (Salix polaris), which reach the massive height of 1 inch on a good day.
Paul Mahaffy and I are the first of our expedition team to arrive. Paul is the principal scientist from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for the Surface Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which will fly to Mars in 2009. We just had a great dinner here at the restaurant Kroa (meaning "edge" in Norwegian, as in "edge of the world" I guess) and await the rest of the team at 2 a.m. in the morning. We feel it's the calm before the storm. Our boat, the RV Lance, leaves Longyearbyen on the August 8, and the next few days we will be busy running through final checks of our equipment.
Walking back to our rooms, it was fun walking on the spongy ground caused by the top few inches of permafrost melting here in the summer. You feel strangely energized by the 24 hour daylight here. It's likely to get even more surreal when I start walking around in a spacesuit.
August 9, 2006
4 p.m. local time
Today, our JPL team tested out their Cliffbot in the field. It successfully clambered down some steep 82 degree-plus cliff faces. The science team from Carnegie, NASA Ames, and elsewhere integrated with the Cliffbot operators to locate and collect samples of interest. The sample scoop was treated with hydrogen peroxide to kill and remove any bugs before Cliffbot's descent. The scooped sample showed elevated levels of lipopolysaccharide (a molecule found in most bacterial cell walls) when compared with the swab of the empty scoop before the descent. Other analyses of Adenosine Triphosphate (or "ATP", a source of energy in all living cells) and organics with the Surface Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument are just coming in. I can attest that getting a rover up a mountain (with associated batteries, cables, and supplies) was hard work, but well worth it.
August 9, 2006
Midnight local time
Just a kilometer or so away from Ebbadalen is a deserted Russian mining town called Pyramiden. The whole town left in a rush a few years ago. Books are left on the tables and food on the table (not much bio-degradation here due to the cold). The flat and dusty terrain was perfect for a first test for me to walk around in the Mark III lunar prototype spacesuit. I decided to go for a "walk into town" with the AMASE team -- about 6 kilometers there and back to the ship. It was hard work and the fan inside the suit was working overtime to stop condensation forming on the inside of the visor. I was pleased with the mobility and was able to negotiate most steps and rocks. I passed a few tents on the outskirts of town, no doubt containing some hikers fast asleep, and was tempted to knock on the door and say "Hello, is this Earth?". But such a huge white thing coming toward a tent can only mean one thing around here -- a Polar Bear, and I didn't want to get mistaken for one.
August 10, 2006
9 p.m. local time
We arrived in Bockfjorden a few hours ago. It's a beautiful place situated in the north of Spitsbergen, close to 80 degrees N latitude. It is a calm stretch of water that almost feels like a lake. On the eastern side is Devonian red rock, mostly clays. This rock was laid down when Spitsbergen was situated at the equator, experiencing an arid desert climate. The Devonian period (410-360 million years ago) is often called the "Age of Fishes", when fish first evolved in the seas and the plants first began to colonize the land. On the west side are geological formations from the Cretaceous (145-65 million years ago) and pre-Cambrian (before 570 million years ago). But in our immediate vicinity is Sverefjellet volcano, an ancient volcano that last erupted only a million years ago. A geological fault runs through this area and is the cause of there being two hot springs sites in Bockfjorden -- places of interest to the astrobiologists on this trip.
I have an extra extremely fun role on this trip -- to wake up everyone at 6:45 a.m. every morning. It involves opening everyone's cabin door and shouting "Morning Breakfast!" or just about anything I want to say really. When else do you get to do that without severe consequences? Looking forward to getting out here with the suit and working with JPL's Cliffbot. Non-stop fun.
August 14, 2006
Today was the first day we have tested the suit out in the field. Our test site was the range of red Devonian slopes to the east of Bockfjorden, in the north of Spitsbergen. After scouting the field location in the morning with Terry Huntsberger and Andrew Steele, we decided this was an ideal site to test the rover and integrate human and robotic activities. The reason was that after a 20-minute hike uphill, you reached a jagged 80-degree cliff face -- too steep to climb up with a spacesuit but not too steep for the Cliffbot. In this case, Cliffbot could go that "extra mile" to assist the human explorer investigate the terrain.
Terry is leading the fantastic Cliffbot rover team that includes Paulo Younse and Mike Garrett. These guys are the best in the world at what they do. To get a rover to work in the field requires incredible patience and attention to detail, and they have it. While they were setting the rover up on the cliff, I was down on shore preparing the spacesuit.
Getting in to the suit requires assistance! The suit stands upright in a metal frame and I get in to it by grabbing on to a bar above the suit and carefully lower myself down. Oliver Botta from the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) helped me out today. He has to close me in the suit by attaching the backpack and checking communications.
Walking around at this site is an incredible experience. There is no obvious vegetation, and the whole slope is a dark red. Add to that the view out of a visor and the feeling of being enclosed in your own habitat. It really does feel like you are on another planet. I also associate it with the feeling of descending below the water surface during SCUBA diving, when everything goes quiet and all that remains is the sound of your own breath and the view out of your visor, while monitoring your breathing equipment (in this case the air fan).
Got to wake everyone up today. I have found that shouting “Morning Breakfast” as loud as I can (in my polite English way) also wakes me up. I have added a twist of Norwegian in there also -- “Jeg liker spise fierfishler frokost” -- which means “I like to eat lizards for breakfast”. Don’t ask how I learned that.
August 15, 2006
Today was a great suit test day. Our test site was again the red Devonian slopes on the eastern side of Bockfjorden. The rocks here were laid down more than 400 million years ago, when fish first began to evolve in the seas. They were very different to most fish you see today. Instead of scales, many had large armor plates and had the appearance of swimming tanks!
Our first objective was to locate interesting rocks, split them with a hammer and perform biological and mineralogical analyses on the newly exposed rock face. Mineralogical analysis was done by Raman spectroscopy. Marc Fries assisted me with this objective. In one case, I decided to analyze a white and pinkish mineral that most geologists on this field trip said was feldspar. After analysis with Raman spectroscopy, there was a strong carbonate signal! This was a powerful reminder that this tool can help support astronauts perform mineralogical analysis in the field.
The second objective was to make the long hike up the slope and collect a sample from the Cliffbot rover. The suit is heavy and most of the weight is carried on the shoulders through shoulder straps mounted within the suit. It is tiring, but the main constraint was the water vapor in my breath fogging up the visor. A fan in the backpack usually removes any condensation, but during vigorous activity the fan can’t keep up! I had to stop for five minutes at the top before crossing a rocky stream as I couldn’t see below me.
At the top of the slope, I reached the cliff face and saw the Cliffbot climbing down from above me. It stopped on a dusty patch, picked up a sample, clambered down further towards me, and reached out an arm. I removed some clean aluminum foil from my suit and reached out to place it below the Cliffbot sample scoop. Cliffbot then dropped the sample into the foil and I stored the sample back in my suit. This was a great demonstration of robot going where a human cannot to support exploration objectives.
The workday lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. But sitting there in the quiet of the glassy fjord at 1 a.m. with the bright Sun on the horizon, I had a feeling of complete calm. Going back to the main ship on the small zodiac boat, I looked back to the red slopes and tapped Ivar Mitkandal on the shoulder and pointed upwards. The half Moon was appearing above the red slopes. It looked as if we were on Mars looking back at the Moon (although of course from Mars, the Moon wouldn’t appear that big).
August 16, 2006
Going to the glacier today! The helicopter is on its way to pick us up. Spiked shoes, rope, and helmets ready! Not to mention rifles, bullets, and flare guns in case of a polar bear surprise. We saw a polar bear on shore in this area two days ago so we have to be careful.
August 19, 2006
We joined a team of geologists today to go and find some styolites -- wavy lines in rocks that indicate prolonged stress and pressure. Less wind made for some great hiking. I've found that a key part of going out into cold weather, among many others, is to take a good thermos of hot chocolate or tea. Robert Scott wrote about it in his diaries from the Antarctic, and it's just the same here -- nothing cheers a group of people stopping for a break than a cup of hot drink.
We have brought up anchor this afternoon and we are setting sail for Longyearbyen. But first we will stop at Moffen Island. This is a walrus colony on a small island just north of 80N. I didn't see many in 2004, but I hope to see some more this year. Our tradition at Moffen is to have a gin and tonic -- I guess I can be persuaded.
August 18, 2006
We are now in Murchison fjord in Nordaustlandet ('Northeastland'), to the NE of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet are separated by Hinlopenstratet, a strait of water only a few miles wide. It is colder here than in Bockfjorden and snowed today. We are now located just about at 80N, and you can tell. This site is of interest for several scientists on the expedition as it contains rocks spanning the period from 800 to about 580 million years ago. This includes the Ediacaran period, when multicellular animals first began to evolve. Certain rock layers here are dominated by stromatolites. These are structures that I liken somewhat to the lower half of an elephant leg. Columnar structures which are actually composed of tiny layers of sediment that were deposited by microrganisms similar, if not identical, to today's cyanobacteria. These layers may contain 'biosignatures', chemicals and isotopes that tell us that life was present at some point in the rock's history.
My 'Morning Breakfast' routine is coming along. Even 'Optical Dave', a cameraman from the UK, joined me this morning at 7:15 to wake everyone up by shouting 'Morning Breakfast!' in our polite English manner obviously. I think I'm enjoying it too much. We struggled to stop laughing by the time we had knocked on the last door.
August 20, 2006
Last night we visited Moffen island, located just north of 80N. We saw a walrus or two, lounging around on the beach. It was then time to turn west around Spitsbergen and then south back to Longyearbyen. The time was around midnight and we all gathered on deck to see the Sun setting close, but not below, the horizon in the north. Way off to the distance there was pack ice at around 84N and beyond that the north pole. It was sad to turn south, but we all had broad smiles on our faces at such a beautiful sight across the Arctic Ocean.
As a special treat, the crew rigged up a special seawater hot tub at the stern of the boat last night. Cruising past the glaciers and jagged peaks that gave rise to the name of Spitsbergen is something special. Sitting in hot water with a drink and all the great friends made on this expedition topped it off. Looking at the smiles around me, I think we all thought "It can't get better than this."
AMASE 2006 was a great example of JPL engineers, Mars scientists, geologists, microbiologists, physicists, professional arctic explorers, photographers, and an excellent ship's crew coming together to form an extremely effective team. Personally, I think the integration of human, robotic, and science activities was especially valuable. Field tests like these will become increasingly important as we prepare for the human exploration of the Moon and Mars.
Last night also witnessed some incredible impersonations of naturalist and TV personality Sir David Attenborough by Henrick, one of our safety officers from Norway. As well as being a calm and excellent person to have in the field, not to mention an experienced geologist, he does a great English accent. I filmed him on deck as we cruised past the jagged peaks of West Spitsbergen as he described the "magnificent examples of glacial erosion" in classic David Attenborough style. Everyone on deck including myself had difficulty holding back the laughter. Might be worth forwarding that to the BBC.
August 21, 2006
Most of the AMASE team left Longyearbyen today for Oslo and then on to Europe or the US. Living and working together on a ship for 2 to 3 weeks creates close friendships and we were sad to leave each other. But we look forward to continuing the good work next year. Svalbard is such a vast wilderness that I also wonder how many other sites exist there with similarities to locations on Mars.
This will be my final entry for this expedition. I would like to express the special thanks from myself, science leader Andrew Steele, and expedition leader Hans Amundsen for the support of The Planetary Society in accomplishing our objectives to integrate spacesuit operations with JPL rover activities. Thanks also go to the fantastic crew of Research Vessel "Lance." A good captain, crew, and cook are essential for a good expedition of this kind, and in this case all were exceptional.
It sounds obvious, but when the Sun never goes below the horizon, it makes you realize we live on a spherical planet. As I write this, night is falling in Washington, D.C. It is the first time I have seen darkness for three weeks. Perhaps this is why exploration of the unknown is so valuable, as it helps us look at familiar things in new ways.
September 6, 2006, update from Cinder Lake, Arizona
We are mid-way through the NASA Desert Research and Technology Study (D-RATS). This is an annual expedition to Cinder Lake and Meteor Crater in Arizona to test various aspects of spacesuit technology and simulated surface extra-vehicular activity (EVA) operations.
D-RATS is organized by the EVA branch of NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, and led by Joe Kosmo (Test Director), Barbara Janoiko (Test Conductor), and Amy Ross (Suit Test Conductor). They are joined by a dynamic and efficient team that includes lead suit technician Kevin Groneman and suit engineers Craig Bernard, Nathan Smith, Bill Welch, John Harris, and Lindsay Aitchison. They ensured that these pressurized (about 3.5 psi above ambient) EVA operations went smoothly with both the I-suit, worn by Keith Splawn from ILC Dover and the Mark III suit, worn by Dean Eppler from NASA JSC.
Joe joined NASA JSC over 40 years ago, shortly after John Glenn's first US orbital flight in 1962. He trained the crews of Apollo 15, 16 and 17 at Cinder Lake in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His experience is invaluable as we prepare to return humans to the Moon and develop surface EVA procedures.
Cinder Lake is a cinder ash field a few miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. It is devoid of most higher plant life and was chosen as a site to train Apollo astronauts in lunar surface activities. The "soil" or fine gravel-like cinder fragments provide a loose top surface, 2-3 inches below which is much harder compacted material -- physical characteristics much similar to the Moon. To make it more "Moon-like", NASA used explosives in the 1960s to create a few craters in the fairly flat terrain. They still exist today and provide a valuable 'lunar test site'.
Our science team from Carnegie Institution of Washington included myself and Marc Fries, as well as Mike Damon from the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development (LOCAD) group from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Our objectives were to integrate various science operations into the EVA timeline. These operations included biological and mineralogical analysis of surface rocks and scooped material, as well as the use of small sensors to search for traces of water below the surface.
Biological analysis involved swab sampling of rock surfaces, followed by on-site analysis of the swabs for the presence of lipopolysaccharide (a component of some bacterial cell membranes) and protein ( a molecule found in all forms of life). We found that all rock surfaces in this desert environment had extremely low or undetectable levels of biological material. However, just an inch or two below the surface existed some more fine-grained darker material that almost smelled like soil from a garden center! Upon analysis, this material contained up to 100 micrograms protein per ml. It seemed a vibrant microbial and possibly fungal community existed just below the surface. As an aside, during Day 2 of D-RATS operations at Cinder Lake was interrupted by a severe hail storm that fell down upon us from San Francisco Peaks. Rather than just stand under our tent, we collected freshly fallen 1 cm-diameter hail stones and analyzed it with the LOCAD PTS instrument to find it contained high lipid (>5 endotooxin units per ml) and protein (15 micrograms per ml). Airborne bacteria condensed in hail perhaps? Where had this bio-material come from? On top of San Francisco Peaks? Interesting questions worth looking into I think.
Mineralogical analysis was led by Marc Fries. He has been working with a handheld Raman spectrophotometer that can detect a minerological signature in 10 seconds. It works by shining a red laser onto a rock's surface, after which the crystal structure on the surface emits light of a certain wavelength that is characteristic of that mineral. For example, quartz emits at about 475 wavenumbers, olivine between 820-850 and feldspar at about 515. While geologist astronauts on the moon will have a feeling for a rock's mineralogical composition by sight, context and feel -- this technique enables a definitive on-site analysis to be made. Marc trained Dean and Keith to perform this analysis on rocks while in their bulky suits and still get good data. An extra benefit of this technique is it can detect organics, specific C-C, C=C and C-H bonds-- and therefore has relevance to monitoring how human's may bio-contaminate the lunar surface.
A main objective of D-RATS this year was to search for a resource (such as water) and excavate that resource. This will be important as we return to the moon and try to live off local resources. There is no certainty that water ice exists on the lunar surface although a H-rich signal has been detected in the polar regions, that might be indicative of water ice. Further mapping of these H-rich features on the lunar surface from orbit may better pinpoint potential water ice resources. However, an astronaut on the surface will always require an immediate 'localized' method of searching for water ice. As a first step to demonstrate how this might be done, we integrated gave Dean and Keith small 1" square humidity sensors. They dropped these on the surface and into 7" trenches that they dug with a back-hoe. I am working on crunching this data right now. This method may not work in the vacuum of the moon, but another technique may be applicable with the same procedure tested here.
Integration of science objectives into the realities of surface EVA operations, that often have certain constraints compared to shirtsleeve operation, is critical as we prepare to return humans to the Moon. D-RATS is a great example of where this is happening right now. Joe, Barbara, Amy and the rest of the D-RATS team are doing a great job -- let's hope it continues.
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