Mars mission to Iceland – Part 6

The Final Close-Out

Our fieldtrip to analogue Mars is almost over. We have returned from our field site for the final time and are now packing our EVA equipment and samples for the return to Earth. It’s going to be sad to leave behind such a wonderful place, but we’ve managed to collect a wealth of data and gained a lot of experience.

On our second to last day on analogue Mars, I got my first taste of off-road roving, taking the Beast Mark 2 to the top of a ridge of steaming sulphur. It was probably delusions of grandeur, but as we slowly bounced along I was reminded of those iconic videos of John Young and the ‘Lunar Grand Prix’ on Apollo 16. What with the dramatic view on our arrival, I felt incredibly lucky to be here, carrying out a job that I truly enjoy.

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Despite my apparent emotional state with leaving Iceland, I can honestly say that I won’t be sad to see the back of the car battery I’ve been humping around for the last week. This 19 kg lump of lead-acid has been powering almost all of our field activities, but isn’t half a pain to carry out each day. The first of my acclimatisation exercises will be trying to straighten out my battery-knacked back.

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Our last day in the field was focused on wrapping up all the little bits and bobs that we were unable to finish because of the previously mentioned vertical water. However, today was extremely windy at the top of the ridge we were sampling from, and so we were all very happy to be back at the Rover at the end of our final EVA.

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And so it now only leaves packing, pizza, and an 8 hour rove back to our launch site in Reykjavik. It’s been hard work, but always fun, and Iceland is eternally beautiful. My fellow analogue astronauts have been a joy to work with on this mission, and I look forward to future explorations.

With the ultimate goal of our fieldwork in mind, I have to say that I feel incredibly privileged to be playing a very small part in our exploration of Mars. In the end, I look forward to the future version of our test camera taking pictures just like this, but from a distant, dusty martian surface.

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Mars mission to Iceland – Part 5

“With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour”

*** MASTER ALARM – CODE 003 ***

After two long and very productive EVAs, our surface operations were hampered by one of our field laptops deciding it’d had enough. And not just a “have you tried turning it off and on again?” problem either. In the warm of our habitat, our Chief Engineer burned the midnight oil taking apart the entire thing, re-soldering the likely culprit BIOS, but unfortunately to no avail. So we went to bed at 1 am (in broad daylight) knowing that the next day we’d be one instrument down in the field.

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*** MASTER ALARM – CODE 002 ***

This is no piffling 1201 alarm code. Or even a 1202 for that matter. The Rover has died.

In a startlingly similar way to the laptop, we came to start up this morning and there was nothing. The best we could get out of the Beast was a few clicks and deathly dial twitches. Flat battery. I really need to brush up on my Icelandic swear words. Nothing was left on overnight, so this is a bit of a mystery. But not to worry, our very kind landlord found some jump leads and we docked to his rover. The only result was smoke pouring out of the relay box, or at least nearby, leading to a hasty undocking manoeuvre. So it’s all over for rover. A replacement has launched from Reyjavik and we are awaiting its landing.

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*MASTER ALARM – CODE 001 ***

With our run of bad luck at this stage of the mission, this has really hit morale hard. Or at least our glasses. We’re out of gin.

“We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.”

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Mars mission to Iceland – Part 4

“Do robots dream of duct-taped shoes?”

With near frostbitten fingers, grit-ridden eyes, and a sometimes strange smell in our dust samples, I can safely say that I feel that little bit closer to being a proper (analogue) astronaut. The radio silence over the last few days has been down to us making the most of the weather, and conducting multiple EVAs in a field site rich in Mars analogue-y goodness.

But before I begin, I think I can put safely to bed the human versus robotic space exploration issue for good. I ask you, could a robot fix its own shoes in the field with only duct tape and a multitool?

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Ok, in a few years, probably yes. And ok, a lot better than I ever could. And sure, the robot might not have brought along a dying pair of boots on a space mission just because it loves them. But nonetheless, let’s just take a moment to remember these boots that have seen me scree-jumping on Etna, jumping over active lava in Hawai’i, and got me to the bar and back again near the Ries Impact Crater despite Weiss beer being served by the bucket. Raichle, if you’re reading this mission report, I will happily take a new pair of boots on my next analogue space mission. NASA, if you’re reading, I will happily wear whatever boots you tell me to wear.

Enough astronaut sartorial chit chat, on with the science! Our recent EVAs have involved parking the Rover Beast in some pretty Moon-like environments, and walking the remaining distance on foot to Mars. Take that Saturn V.

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Once in our Mars analogue site we have been carrying out a few complimentary investigations. First, we identified this site (not quite) from orbit, by studying hyperspectral data from an airborne study carried out a few years ago. These data allow us to make a direct comparison with similar data from in orbit around the real Mars. We then take a step closer to the surface by landing our ExoMars panoramic camera (PanCam) test instrument (AUPE – made by Aberystwyth University), to take multispectral panoramas, to see how in situ rover data compares with the coarser, but wider coverage, aerial data. These tests are also great for understanding how best to choose future landing sites too, as the choice is made with orbital data.

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In another example of the added value of human space explorers, today I managed to find the movie setting on my new camera, and so have spent the day annoying my fellow analogue astronauts. This is AUPE going through it’s start-up routine, sped up 8 times, for no other reason than to see cars speeding past.

Next we go even closer to the surface, and use a field spectrometer, operating in visible and near-infrared wavelengths to compare to the two previous datasets. Here is Cmdr Harris getting all Dr Peter Venkman with her ASD field spec on loan from the NERC Field Spectroscopy Facility.

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Finally, we collect sample material to bring back to analogue Earth (London) from those sites we took spectra from. When we have left our quarantine period (duty free), we will use an X-ray diffractometer to tell us the exact minerals present in our samples, and see how the other data sets compare.

Then, in a typical EVA, it’s time to refuel (the astronauts), with lunch on this planet being a delicious dark bread that is magically cooked by putting it in the ground, all served in a space-age foil.

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Later in the EVA today we roved to a site that truly made me yelp with joy – we’ve found Home Plate on (analogue) Mars! This feature bears an uncanny resemblance, and almost certainly common formation mechanisms with the original Home Plate investigated by the Spirit rover. Both are probably some kind of explosive volcanic feature due to the interaction of magma and water. In our case, it may well have been subglacial meltwater, as we’ve also found pillow lavas on the top of this ridge.

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And for comparison, here’s the real Home Plate.

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Finally, a closing word on the physical toll that being an analogue astronaut can bring. After 8 hours at 2 degrees and a howling gale, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

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Mars mission to Iceland – Part 3

> BEEP

“Is it on? I love this guy!”

> SYSTEM STATUS. OK.

> SO THE MEATBAGS HAVE SWITCHED ME ON. ABOUT TIME.

> ENVIRONMENT STATUS. INDOORS.

> HUH?

> …

> OK, PRECIPITATION HEAVY OUTSIDE. IN MY PRESENT CONFIGURATION I’M BETTER IN THE DRY. SO IS THE CAR BATTERY POWERING ME. ALTHOUGH, IT WOULD BE GOOD TO SHOCK THEM.

> CAMERA STATUS. OK. R8-950NM.

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> THEY’RE TAKING A FULL FILTER MULTI-IMAGE PANORAMA OF THE FRONT ROOM. PSH, WASTE OF MY TALENT. AND STOP MOVING.

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“Pete, stop running in and out of shot”

> WOW, WELL DONE, YOU’RE IN 3D, VERY IMPRESSIVE. SLOW HAND CLAP. IF I HAD HANDS.

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> CAMERA STATUS. OK.

> LOOK, I’M ALL READY TO GO. LET’S GET OUT THERE. IT’S CLEARING UP.

> MEATBAGS ARE DRINKING A HOT BROWN BEVERAGE. AGAIN.

> OOOH, HERE WE GO THEN. PRECIPITATION STOPPED. IT’S ON.

> …

> SYSTEM STATUS. EGGY.

> UGH, BAD SMELL, WHERE AM I?

> CAMERA STATUS. OK.

> NOW WE’RE TALKING. THIS IS WHAT I’M MADE FOR. ALTHOUGH THE ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE SEEMS A LITTLE HIGH. WILL MONITOR. WHERE’S MY MET STATION?

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> CAMERA STATUS. OK. L10-660NM. R10-660NM.

> AW YEAH. I LOVE THIS FILTER COMBINATION – I AM EVIL AUPE. MWAHAHA. NOW WHERE’S MY LASER?

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> THIS IS A BREEZE. SO MANY PICTURES. DUM DE DUM.

> CAMERA STATUS. OK. L3-660NM. L2-550NM. L1-460NM. R3-660NM. R2-550NM. R1-460NM.

> THINK I’LL JUST KNOCK OUT A QUICK 3 X 2 FULL RGB PANORAMA. TOO EASY.

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> HANG ON – WAS THAT LIFE IN THE BACKGROUND? I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL SOMEBODY.

> HMMM. MY PICTURES ARE GREAT, BUT SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT HERE.

> YOU KNOW I CAN SEE YOU, RIGHT? SERIOUSLY, WHERE’S MY LASER?

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> CAMERA STATUS. OK

> OOH I’VE MOVED. HAVE I GOT WHEELS NOW? WHERE ARE ALL THE OTHER INSTRUMENTS?

> SERIOUSLY, I’M SURE SOMETHING MOVED OVER THERE. ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING? IS THAT A PACKET OF GINGER NUTS?

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> WAS THAT RAIN?

> IS THAT STEAM? IS THIS PLACE ACTIVE?

> SYSTEM STATUS. SUB-OPTIMAL.

> SERIOUSLY MEATBAGS, THAT’S RAIN.

“Ok, we should probably pack all this up and make sure the gin hasn’t gone off. Pete, you can carry the car battery”

“Aw man.”

> HANG ON, THIS IS MARS, RIGHT?

Mars mission to Iceland – Part 2

“Oh Hey – There is Orange Soil”

Two main discoveries on Day 3 of our analogue mission to Mars:

(1) Despite looking for Mars we’ve found an awful lot of the Moon. This isn’t that surprising given that our EVA’s today were mainly over dark basaltic lava flows searching for good alteration targets for our instruments. But it’d better for our Mars prototype camera and research if we stuck to the right planet. Note to Iceland – stop being so geologically-interesting.

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(2) We have definitely found water on our Mars analogue site, but the trouble is it seems to be coming downwards from the sky. Obviously, as a tough Manchester lad this isn’t a problem for me and my webbed feet, but might be a problem for our instruments that need good sunlight.

But, I realised that on yesterday’s mission log I completely neglected to mention my fellow analogue astronauts or the reason that we’re on this mission. The almost constant sunlight at our landing site can play tricks on a gin-addled memory.

So, in charge is Commander Jennifer Harris, a Birkbeck PhD student looking at hyperspectral remote sensing techniques and the habitability of Mars. Cmdr Harris has organised this whole trip and is the boss in the field. The rest of us are here to support her mission goals first and foremost.

First Officer Dr Claire Cousins, a grizzled Iceland vet. with so much field experience that she could walk us around Iceland blindfolded. She should stop it though, it’s getting dangerous. FO Cousins is an astrobiology researcher at the University of Edinburgh.

Chief Engineer Matt Gunn, our resident technology guru, photographer extraordinaire and expert in, well, everything to be honest. Gunny, as I’ve just called him for the first time, is based at Aberystwyth University.

And me, the Northern Optimist.

The goal of today’s EVA was all about geological context. Before heading out with close to 50 kg of kit (most of which has to go on Cmdr Harris’ back) we have to make sure that we can find and safely navigate to suitable targets. Anything that is not dark basalt is a good start. Areas venting steam are great for alteration, but bad for a spectrometer (too much water). Oh, and although this is a habitability mission, life doesn’t half get in the way of geology on this planet. So anything green is out.

But that didn’t stop us spotting some fantastic martian-style geology today. From hyaloclastite to welded tuffs, there is plenty of evidence of volcano-ice interaction on this planet. Although you could probably tell that from looking out of the window of the cruise stage. But my favourite find was probably the gypsum veins, which looked strikingly similar to those seen by our sister mission Opportunity on Mars last year.

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Later on this afternoon, in the midst of a barren Moonscape of endless basaltic flows, we had our own Jack Schmitt moment. Orange (and every other colour) soil.

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The weather tomorrow is looking a bit Scotch Mist, so that seems like a good time for a log update on the instruments themselves.

In the meantime, we also discovered Tatooine today, with a positive identification of our very own Pit of Sarlacc.

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Also finally, and for the official log record, I honestly can’t believe that we forgot to bring a corkscrew.