The Lake Lander's New Home
Yesterday, Trey and Liam, along with Chris and Cristian, spent the day preparing PLL for its journey to and installation in its new home. That meant, first, moving it from its temporary home to Launch Point, on the lake’s southwest shore. The advantage of working at Launch Point is that it’s the one spot along the lakeshore accessible by road.
The scientific and communications equipment had already been checked and double-checked. What remained to be done was outfitting PLL with new anchors. Two 140-pound anchors. These were too heavy to lift, so they had to be disassembled, carried onto the PLL’s pontoon in pieces, and then reassembled. While moored off the southern shore of the lake, PLL has been held in place by relatively lightweight anchors, but for it’s longer-term stay on the northwest shore, it needs to be anchored more securely.
Assembling the anchors was only step one. Liam spent most of the day yesterday “flaking” the ropes attached to the anchors. This is not a problem the average person has to be concerned with, but when you’re floating on the surface of deep, hypothermia-inducing water, on a moderately unstable platform, and planning to drop overboard a pair of 140-pound anchors attached to very long ropes, it’s a good idea to prepare carefully.
You might think the best approach would be to coil the rope in a cute little circular pile. Turns out, that’s not the case. As you may have experienced with a garden hose, what appears to be neatly coiled, when pulled on, can suddenly become hopelessly tangled.
That’s not such a big problem when you’re dealing with a garden hose. But when you’re dealing with a long rope, with a 140-pound weight attached to one end, and when you are about to send that weight hurtling down through 45 meters of water, you want the rope to play out smoothly, not to snag on anything. Such as a piece of expensive equipment. Or someone’s ankle. Because whatever it snags on will (a) probably get broken; and (b) be dragged down into the deep with little hope of recovery.
So you flake the rope. Which means you stack it up in what looks like a random back-and-forth pile, but a pile that, crucially, is snag-resistant. And then you flake the other rope. And then you go back and flake the first rope again, just to be sure. And then the second rope, again. And a third time, to be really, really sure.
All this flaking was time well spent. Today, the PLL was sailed to its new location, the ropes were deployed without incident, and PLL was secured for its three-month stay in the northwest waters of Laguna Negra.
Long story short: when the laptop had been in the Robo Dome, it had been attached to an external monitor. And the window for the software package that talked to PLL had been displayed on that external monitor. But out on the water, there was only the laptop. No external monitor. You’d think the software could figure that out and display the window in question on the laptop screen. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Instead, all it could do was issue a cryptic error message. Fortunately, once the team got back to the Robo Dome and reattached the external monitor, communication was re-established.
Now that everything’s working as it should, PLL is set to spend the next three months collecting data and transmitting it back to the IRG group at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. At that point, some members of the PLL team will retrieve the device and ship it back to Ames, where it will get upgraded with both new hardware and new software, before being brought back to Laguna Negra next summer.
The data that it sends back will form the basis for the development of the first version of PLL’s autonomous control software. Developing that autonomous software is the primary technology goal of the PLL ASTEP (Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets) project. It’s not yet clear how “smart” the software will be in Year 2 of the project. Ultimately, the goal is to program PLL to make decisions on its own about what events are of scientific interest and about how best to study those events. But in Year 2, it may not implement autonomous decisions, but rather limit itself to performing the analysis that would lead to such decisions.