Saturday, January 2, 2010

MDRS-88 Update: Research goals for the mission

The diverse educational as well as professional backgrounds of our crew members have given us an opportunity to take on a broad set of research goals and objectives. We have two primary research goals and five secondary objectives.

One of our primary research objectives is the Analysis and classification of the micropaleontology in the vicinity of the Utah Mars Desert Research Station. This study will be led by Dr. Stephen F. Wheeler, Ph.D as primary investigator. The search on other planets for life that does not present obvious signs of current biology will require a detailed examination of the geomorphology and sedimentary history of planetary evolution, including a search for fossil evidence of early prokaryotic microstructures and colonizing macrostructures such as stromatolites, as well as eukaryotic organisms. This study will consist of collection and microscopic inspection of samples from exposed Jurassic strata in the immediate vicinity of the MDRS. Foraminifera, Radiolaria, and other micro-fossils in the samples will be identified, cataloged and recorded.

The second primary research objective is to participate on the on-going Food Trial during our two week mission to the MDRS. Our crew will be given two types of dehydrated and MRE foodstuffs. We will have to prepare meals from both types of ingredients and complete a survey on each type of food indicating taste, texture and other pertinent information listed in the survey document. The food will primarily consist of beans, tofu, bread and other dehydrated and reconstituted foodstuffs. Reports from previous crews during this research season have not had complaints in regards to their dietary restrictions and have reported very creative menus and the preparation of very tasty meals. This study is sponsored by Dr. Kim Binsted of the University of Hawaii.

Bianca Nowak and Paul McCall have planned several Astrophotography and Cosmologic Observations using the Musk Telescope. The MDRS complex includes access to a Celestron 14" CGE1400 telescope. Because of the unique location of the Musk Telescope, with one of the darkest skies on Earth, this location makes an ideal viewing platform for planetary and deep sky photography. Bianca will be using a professional grade Nikon D300 camera to take photographs of the planets (Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), the Milky Way galaxy, and other important objects in the night sky. While the Musk Telescope offers remote operation (from the Hab), Bianca and Paul are planning on using the Nikon and a Phillips Toucam in a manual mode. Current night time temperatures at the MDRS are being reported at 15F, so part of their investigation is refining thermal protection of the camera and computers for long duration use in such extreme conditions.

While we have not finalized the details on this project, we have some preliminary plans on a Meteorite retrieval and classification project. In this study, crew members will collect meteorites from the vicinity of the MDRS and catalog each find with regard to whether the sample was found in late or early strata or surface (recent) and whether the sample is a stony, stony-iron, nickel-iron, or carbonaceous chondrite meteorite type. The meteorite retrieval will be conducted under full simulation (wearing spacesuits).

One of the main tasks of humans visiting Mars will be the search for signs of life. Because crew members will have to use EVA suits, which limit their mobility and field of view, and will have limited time to explore a large area, it is important to characterize the efficiency of a suited crew member in their ability to identify biological samples within a limited time span. Our Chief Biologist for the mission, Diego Urbina, has proposed an experiment in the Determination of error in biological sampling due to EVA suit constraints. This study will identify an area near the MDRS with a sparse but existent population of visible biological samples. Three members of the team will spend 20 minutes each, individually, identifying life forms in the selected area without wearing EVA suits. The remaining three team members will perform the exact same task wearing EVA suits. Afterwards, data will be processed statistically in order to determine the differences in performance for suited and non-suited crew.

We will also have a research project centering on the Study of the growth of Physallis Peruviana at the Mars Desert Research Station Greenhab. Mars is not as well shielded from radiation as the Earth, and radiation is known to cause biological damage due to the formation of reactive molecules, or free radicals. However, this damage can be minimized through the consumption of antioxidants. Physallis Peruviana (commonly known as Cape Gooseberry), a poisonous plant native to South America, has an edible fruit that is rich in antioxidants. Moreover, due to the high locations where the plant evolved, it has high tolerance for UV radiation, poor soils, and even a certain degree of disregard. All these qualities make P. Peruviana a plant that can be extremely useful in a Mars settlement. This study will evaluate how well this plant adapts to the environment of analog Mars, and identify its reaction to the shorter day duration, temperature, and other factors present at MDRS that are not present in tropical zones. The plant grows best in sandy to gravelly ground, so different types of sand can be collected during EVA and tested with the plant to establish which offers the best conditions for the germination. The development of the plants will be monitored, observing through the microscope and establishing the type of any eventual damage.

GPS Mapping of EVAs and Photo-geotagging: During the FMARS-2009 mission, Brian Shiro investigated using GPS technology to map EVAs and also geotag photographs onto Google Earth. We believe that this is an important tool for future EVA tracking as well photo-geo identifying locations of samples and points of geologic interest. Laksen Sirimanne will lead a study on using a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS to collect GPS data to reconstruct our EVA Track and locations of the finds on Google Earth and also use a GPS enabled Nikon camera to photo geotag all photographs taken while on EVA which can also be superimposed onto Google Earth. We believe that this tool will soon become a standard for field work in many scientific fields.

David Levine will take the lead on the Daily planning, scheduling and reporting activities of our mission. We have several reports that our due on a daily basis: the Commanders Check-in, Commanders Report, Engineering Report, EVA Reports and any Key Science Reports. David intends to document our mission from start to finish including reporting on our daily EVAs. However, there are limitations to the amount of data that can be received and transmitted from the Hab (again to simulate an actual mission constraint), so assuming there's sufficient bandwidth, David plans to blog daily about our experiences including frequent small updates on Twitter and Facebook. Upon his return from the mission, he will write and/or edit wiki pages and other technical documentation on MDRS equipment, procedures, and policies, as required.


BrianShiro said...

What a great mission you have planned! I was wondering about the meteorite study. Do you expect to find some in the area, or will you plant some there just plant some there to see if EVA participants can find them?

Laksen Sirimanne said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for all of your help this evening on EVA tracking with the Garmin Forerunner. I really appreciate it. We have a full plate in terms of research, so I hope the weather coorporates and allows us to execute our plans. In terms of the meteorite study.. our original goals included actually finding them.. but I wrote and called so many folks with the hope that someone would be willing to donate a metal detector.. but no luck so far. So we may have to modify our experiment. I have a small collection of meteorites, so we might just experiment on retreival and experimentation techniques.