Testing Spacesuits in Antarctica, part 4

March 13, 2011

Pablo using the drill with the pressurized spacesuit, and Jon providing communications support. Credit: M. Marinova

We woke up to find a cloudless sky and no wind. This is a rare sight in Marambio, and we quickly got to work. The morning excursion was to make sure that the spacesuit had survived the long trip from North Dakota: all of the jarring, warming up in the sun, cooling down in the snow storm, and being put all back together.

After some careful preparations, Pablo put on the spacesuit (a rather long process) and the little portable backpack that provides life support. The life support pack is a necessity since this is a pressurized spacesuit, and there needs to be a constant exchange of air so that high levels of carbon dioxide do not build up. The spacesuit is commonly operated from a 12V car supply, but the backpack can be used to provide about 20 minutes of life support. For this sort of testing to make sure all systems are functioning correctly, the backpack is just the right thing.

The test involved testing the pressurization of the spacesuit and some of the tools we will be using. One of these is a large power drill. While the surface is easier to explore, it is also where most of the alteration happens: winds blow and bring material from all over the planet, water and ice crack rocks and erode them, meteorite impacts break up material, and any organism that may have been living in the past would have been irradiated by strong (and deadly) ultraviolet (UV) radiation for billions of years. In the subsurface, all of these effects are lessened, and we can get a look at the past conditions of the planet.

In addition, the deeper we go the farther back in time we can see: this is the same idea behind drilling in ice on the Earth to figure out what the climate was like in the past, or drilling in the ground to look at sediments that were deposited long ago.

Other instruments of interest are the simple sampling tools to be used. While in the lab it’s easy to use a spatula or a small alcohol wipe to sterilize an instrument, this becomes much harder with winter gloves on (just try it!). Would it even work with the bulky and pressurized spacesuit gloves? In designing a spacesuit, being able to keep the person inside alive, keeping the weight of the suit low, and allowing the person to do the work they need to do are all equally important. Testing a spacesuit involves looking at all of these aspects, and that is why being in an analogue environment and doing scientifically-relevant work is important.

Carefully getting the sample into the plastic tube. Interestingly, a kneeling and leaning forward position was the most comfortable and easy as it distributed the weight of the heavy backpack. In the picture: M. Marinova. Credit: Jon Rask

Pablo’s testing of the suit went great! He could use the drill, though the handle was not quite large enough for use with the spacesuit gloves, and he could collect both surface and subsurface samples. Our first set of successes in Antarctica! In the afternoon we would do longer and more extensive testing.

As we finished the spacesuit testing, we heard that the C-130 flight for the day was landing shortly. We all ran over to the runway to see the landing, including being allowed to go up in the tower to watch the landing from there. It was an incredible sight! You could see the C-130 descending to the height of the runway from far away, and applying full breaks the moment it touched down.

Ever since I met Pablo, I had been joking around with him that I would perfectly fit into the spacesuit. It really is the right size for me! But I certainly didn’t expect it when at lunch Pablo looked at me rather seriously, pointed out the significant weight of the suit and that it’s not super comfy, and asked if I really meant it that I wanted to test the spacesuit.

Putting on the spacesuit is an involved procedure. First there are the undergarment layers (in this case my winter clothing so that I would be warm in the Antarctic fall). Next come the electrically-heated socks, gloves and vest. Then there are the rubber tubes that go down the pant legs to help air circulation in the lower half of the suit. Next comes the pressure bladder (very similar to a dry suit for diving) which you have to pull over all the other pieces. And then there is the harder section with its rings and pieces to keep the pressure bladder in check. The helmet portion comes on last – after all the air circulation has been turned and is working properly. Since the afternoon tests were going to be longer, a much larger backpack was used, which would be plugged into the 12V outlet of our support vehicle.

Trying to figure out how to make the drill work – there must be a magic combination! In the picture: M. Marinova. Credit: Jon Rask

The tasks for the afternoon testing were clear: test the full range of activities that are likely to be done during a planetary mission. As our model we used the work that we did in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica just a few months earlier. In particular, my tasks were to take soil samples from different depths (including digging to that depth), find other objects of interest and collect them, use equipment to measure the natural background radiation of the environment, and drill into the subsurface and collect samples. Some of these tasks may seem simple, but when you put on a spacesuit nothing is quite the same. We had to check what tasks could still be accomplished, what changes to the equipment would be needed to make it easier to use, and where we were really stumped. And just as importantly, we need to know what parts of the spacesuit get the most wear and tear from the tasks to be performed.

We started the testing off easy – just collecting general soil samples. The tools were a trowel and sterile plastic tubes (Falcon tubes). While Jon handed these to me, I was left to do everything else – open the tubes, collect the sample, get the sample inside the tubes without contaminating it, close the tube, and label it. Through this whole process an incredibly interesting observation occurred: I could do all of these steps. Certainly these steps were not fast – but working in an extreme environment almost never is. Even with just a set of winter gloves, or being careful not to contaminate a sample, requires doing everything more carefully, and more slowly. The bulk of the spacesuit and the large gloves slowed down the process a little more, but I could even take the cap off a pen and label the plastic tubes with the large gloves.

For me, it was reassuring to know that even if we were told to leave for Mars tomorrow, the spacesuits we have are sufficient to complete the most important tasks we have. Further work on the spacesuit would only make the work of future planetary explorers even more efficient. And while it took some time to get used to the heavy backpack, and how to stand and kneel to distribute the weight better, after 2 or 3 hours of testing I was still ready for more.

Moonrise over the station: a moment to take in the stillness and beauty of the place. Credit: M. Marinova

Collecting pieces of rock and digging went just as well. To test the robustness of the gloves, I made sure to do some hand digging too. The one step that we skipped was trying to sterilize the trowel with alcohol wipes between samples – this really would have been impossible with the gloves, and a much more sophisticated sterilization method will be available to an actual planetary mission.

Next came using the larger equipment. The Geiger counter – which measures background radiation which is present in all material that surrounds us – was our example of simple equipment that we may want to use in planetary exploration. It was certainly not designed with spacesuit gloves in mind, so operating it took some ingenuity. The handle for holding it was too small, as were the buttons to turn it on and change the measurement settings. But to the rescue came the rubberized fingertips of the gloves – I could use these to turn the knobs. And to hold it I could hold the handle with my fingertips rather than with my whole hand. For an instrument like this, doing a redesign of the interface would certainly be a significant improvement. But again I was amazed that with a little bit of ingenuity in how to operate the equipment, we took the measurements we needed.

To my surprise, the hardest equipment to operate was the drill. This drill was built with work gloves in mind, and in any normal circumstance the hand looks very large. But it was practically impossible to put my hand into the handle without activating the ‘on’ switch. Without my hand firmly gripping the handle, I also couldn’t use that hand to press down on the drill. After a lot of trial and error – and some huffing and puffing under the heavy suit – the solution seemed to be to use just my pinky to activate the ‘on’ switch, and then lean my whole body on the drill the provide the downward force. The method was by no means elegant, but importantly I was able to drill to about half a meter (1.5 ft) depth, then to turn over the drill and use a plastic tube to collect sample still in the drill bit. Again – success!

Precariously holding the Geiger counter – only one finger would fit in the handle. In the picture: M. Marinova. Credit: Jon Rask

Pablo was excited to get a lot of relevant data on how to improve the spacesuit, and he’ll spend a lot more time looking at all the dust embedded in the fabric and any wear and tear on the suit.

For me, as a planetary scientist who works in a lot of field environments, it was incredibly interesting to get a peek into what tasks future planetary explorers will be able to perform, and what activities may be quite difficult to accomplish. All of the work that we did was to collect samples and take measurements that we really would do on another planet, making all the lessons learned especially pertinent.

This project was made possible with support from the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program and the University of North Dakota. Travel from Buenos Aires to Marambio and accommodation in Marambio was provided by the Argentinian Air Force and Argentinian Antarctic Program.

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