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Expeditions Off to a Rocky Start
Off to a Rocky Start
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Moon to Mars
Posted:   07/21/11
Author:    Henry Bortman

Summary: Astrobiology Magazine Field Research Editor Henry Bortman is spending the week in British Columbia with scientists from the Pavilion Lake Research Project. They are using submersible vehicles to explore the "microbialite" structures that line the bottom of Kelly Lake. In his first report, Bortman describes some initial snags.

Principal Investigator Darlene Lim (left) explains to members of the PLRP team how sub operations will work at Kelly Lake. Credit: Henry Bortman
Kelly Lake, British Columbia, Canada
Monday, July 18, 2011

Today was the first day of “sub ops” in the Pavilion Lake Research Project’s (PLRP’s) exploration of Kelly Lake. For the past couple of days, engineers and technicians worked to put in place the barge from which the submersibles are launched and communications equipment to connect the subs at the lake back to the MMCC (Mobile Mission Control Center. The MMCC is a NASA trailer crammed full of communications equipment and video-display screens, currently residing in the parking lot at the Cariboo Lodge, 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from Kelly Lake, in the rural Canadian town of Clinton, BC. Clinton has never before seen anything like it.

Kelly Lake is of interest to scientists because, like nearby Pavilion Lake, its lakebed is covered by carbonate structures, in various shapes in sizes, that microbes are believed to play a role in forming. Although similar structures can be found in a number of other places around the world, the “microbialites,” as they’re referred to, in Pavilion and Kelly Lakes are unusual because they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, because they appear in deep rather than shallow water, and because Kelly and Pavilion are freshwater lakes.

Nuytco sub technician Jeff Rozon (right) goes through the sequence of pre-flight checks with pilot Greg Slater. Credit: Henry Bortman
For the past three years, PLRP has explored Pavilion Lakes with piloted submersible vehicles. Today, the first sub made it into the water at Kelly Lake. Not exactly on schedule, though.

As is common in field research requiring complex technological infrastructure, equipment has a tendency not to be a bit fussy at first. For PLRP, communication equipment, in particular, is critical to mission success. During each sub “flight,” a continuous stream of video is captured to a hard drive on the sub. This video is a core component of the scientific data collected by the project. But to be useful, the scientists need to know the physical location where each video frame was captured.

That location information comes from a tracking system known as WinFrog. Without WinFrog information, the video data captured by the subs is just a bunch of cool pictures. And on day 1, WinFrog had a rough time getting out of bed.

Sub pilot Margarita Marinova (in sub) reviews her flight plan with PLRP Science Lead Allyson Brady (center) and Principal Investigator Darlene Lim. Credit: Henry Bortman
Eventually, the kinks were ironed out sufficiently to enable both subs to launch, albeit a couple of hours behind schedule. But shortly after the second sub was launched, WinFrog acted up again and the sub had to be pulled back out of the water.

One sub, piloted by Greg Slater, of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, did complete a successful mission, albeit a shorter one than originally planned. You can read Greg’s blog of his experience here.

WinFrog’s moodiness made for an interesting challenge to PLRP mission planners as well. One aspect of this year’s PLRP activity is the integration of a planning team from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), folks who work on planning activities on the International Space Station.

Over the past two months, the “timeliners,” as they are called, have worked with PLRP leaders to script for the duration of the field expedition the daily activities of the sub pilots and their support personnel. Using Score software developed at NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), the timeliners have created detailed schedules not only for each sub flight, but for team meetings and meals as well, with the goal of optimizing the scientific output of the week’s fieldwork.

Pilot Greg Slater begins his descent for first successful sub flight in the waters of Kelly Lake. Credit: Henry Bortman
On day one, however, the plan kind of flew out the window. As Matthew Fox, an ISS Operations Planner from JSC, succinctly put it at a wrap-up meeting that evening (a meeting that, in case you’re wondering, started late), “Obviously we didn’t follow the timeline.”

“The ideal plan was to start around 9:00 or 9:30 in the morning. We didn’t get a sub in the water till 12:30 or 1:00. And then we only had one sub,” Fox explained later. The timing of the entire day’s activities, the end goal of which is processed video (video that has been downsized and reformatted) for the scientists to analyze, depends on when the subs get in the water. “Once that starts, we kind of know from that point how everything else is going to fall out for the rest of the day.” So until the communications problems were resolved and it was clear when the sub flights – make that sub flight, singular – would begin, “we went into the mindset of being more observational.”

From the perspective of Darlene Lim, PLRP principal investigator, however, the Score software proved useful when the timeline was disrupted. “What it gave us was perspective,” she said. “I would tell Matt, ‘this is approximately the time we’ll get the boats in the water,’” and using the software, he calculated that if the sub flew its complete five-hour run, processing the video captured by the sub “would go on till 2:00 in the morning.” Lim decided to shorten the flight.

“Yesterday was day one. It’s a dry run. And that was kind of half-expected,” Fox said. “Maybe not to that extreme,” he added. Still, Lim concluded, although the science objectives for the first day were not fully met, “To me, actually, it was a success.”

PLRP field operations will continue through the rest of the week. If you have a question for someone on the PLRP team, click the red Ask a Question button and send it in. We’ll get you an answer as quickly as we can.


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