Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Each according to his gifts: Analogues, A Canadian Contribution

This beautiful image taken by U of T's Tim Barfoot shows the ROC-6 Rover that will be used to simulate a Lunar Rover this summer as part of an Analogue Mission. It is shown here at one of the CSA's 10 Analogue Sites: Lake Orbiter, Devon Island.

How can Canada best contribute to Planetary Science and the development of Space Missions? Should we launch our own superior spacecraft? Develop our own cadre of scintilating supporting scientists? Engineer the finest quality instruments? Well, we do currently do all of these things. But while we do posess high quality in each domain and make valuable contributions to missions, it is unlikely that we will become the largest source of either.

However, there is one domain in which we have a distinct advantage. Ours is a large country with many different environments. These provide excellent places to check-out landed spacecraft equipment and develop techniques to command them. If this testing is done in what we call a "flight-like" manner (that is to say that we force upon ourselves the constraints which would exist were the mission actually occuring on another planet) then we have a special name for the exercise: an Analog Mission.

Such a Mission should have all the necessary simulated pieces in place to mirror an actual mission. These include a realistic instrument platform (i.e. a lander, rover or other spacecraft simulator), realistic instrumentation, realistic communications and a remote mission operations team which works on a schedule that is itself suitably "flight-like."

Why go through this exercise? Well, there are certain questions which can, perhaps, be resolved more easily and certainly more cheaply, on the ground rather than during a live flight mission with hundreds of millions of dollars and irreplaceable measurements at stake. I mention cheaply because while an astronaut mission to Mars or a rover to the moon might cost billions, these can be simulated for under $1 million here on Earth (Current CSA Analogue contracts are valued at C$800,000).

There are two sides to these questions. There is a technological side - what can specific instruments really tell us about what we're looking at. It is advantageous to do this on the Earth, since we can take samples back to the lab and determine if our conclusions were correct. There is also a human side - what techniques can we use to maximize our usage of time and get the best science back from the field. This is to say, what set of operations personnel, strategy and procedures work best to command a space mission. Each of these in isolation is not an analogue mission. The first would be called a "Tech Demo" while the second might be more accurately referred to as an "Operational Readiness Test" or "Operational Simulation." A true analogue mission is the marriage of the two with one caveat: one should be careful that the extreme terrestrial environment is warranted. It is only after all that can be done in a lab setting is complete that one should set off for a remote field site.

But once you have gotten to that point, you need to be able to place your instruments in a suitably "analogous" place. For instance, if you want to see how well you can explore a crater, then it would make sense to visit a crater. As there are many different environments out there amongst the planets, there is a need for a variety of different analogue sites. This is where Canada excels. In 2007, the Canadian Analogue Research Network (CARN) identified 10 sites within the country that lend themselves well to exploring techniques suitable for planetary exploration:

Hipkin, Osinski, Berinstain and Léveillé's List of Analogue Sites in Canada simulating diverse environments suitable for various targets including Mars, the Moon and Europa

The three red dots represent areas which already have significant infrastructure in place. Pavilion Lake has been used by ESMD for almost a decade to determine techniques for exploring an underwater environment, as might exist at Europa, Houghton Crater on Devon Island is a place where Mars exploration techniques are often hashed out by multiple groups, including the Mars Society. McGill University, one of the founding partners of the CATP CREATE program, also maintains an arctic research station on Axel Heiberg Island. In addition to these three are seven sites of interest without extensive infrastructure. These are (1) Borup Fjord and (2) the Eureka Sound Lowlands, both on Ellesemere Island; (3) the Toktoyaktuk peninsula; (4) Evaporite Basins in British Columbia; (5) East German Creek, MB; (6) Kidd Creek Mine, ON and (7) the Mistastin Impact Structure in Labrador.

This list is not exhaustive and who knows where future analogue missions will go. One of the current slate of missions, the M3-Mission, led by Principal Investigator Ed Cloutis of the University of Manitoba, is actually headed for a mine in Asbestos, QC. The reason for this is that the M3 Rover is designed to search for signs of Methane from Serpentinization reactions similar to those suspected for the Mumma plumes of methane on Mars. Where better to look for this signature than in rock full of serpentine (asbestos)? This also brings up a subsidiary point: since the analogue locations are, by definition, extreme environments, they lend themselves well to astrobiological field research. This gives an additional justification for those scientists involved.

For my part, I'm rather interested in site number (7), the Mistastin Impact Structure. And not just because it's the only example on the list from my home province! I was asked, earlier in the year, to help out with an analogue mission being jointly run by the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. We will be simulating two separate missions over the summer. The first of these is a robotic sample return mission to the South Pole-Aitken Basin of the Moon using a rover (image at the top of this article). Thus, we can imagine that this mission is a precursor to the current New Frontiers Contender, MoonRise. The second scenario envisions a crewed follow-up by Astronaut-Geologists. These "deployments" as we call them will be taking place at two craters. The first scenario will unfold at the Sudbury Impact Structure in June; the second at Mistastin.

Those of you who read this space frequently might be asking yourselves: what can a Martin Atmospheric Scientist possibly contribute to a Lunar Mission? It's not as if there is an atmosphere to sample on the Moon!  The answer is process. At the time when I was brought on-board the mission, there was no one involved with the project who had previously worked on a Space Mission in Operations. Thus, my contribution was to take what I had learned at Phoenix (and a short stint on MER) and to adapt those principles to generate a cohesive and efficient mission control architecture. This approach was motivated in part by ESMD's Mars Exploration analogue group, the Desert RATS, who suggested something like this at LPSC this year.

I won't lie to you - it has been a lot of hard work and a bumpy process. As much as I hope I have been able to teach my colleagues about "how NASA does it," I have learned a great deal about lunar geology and how teams fit together. There were preconceptions on both sides that are slowly getting worked out, and I feel that we are converging! In particular, we made great strides during a recent team-building exercise at Whitefish Falls, ON:

"A funny thing happened on the way to the Moon." Project P.I. Gordon Osinski and Project/Field Site Manager Cassandra Marion work on getting a stubborn rock-coring drill started. In the foreground we have our target of the day - the enigmatic impact-produced Sudbury Breccia, similar to the material we hope to examine during the analogue mission. Meanwhile, over Oz's left shoulder is our ultimate target: the Moon. Photo (c) 2011 by John E. Moores.

In particular it has been an interesting project for me to adapt a system built to be used with a science team 100 members strong made up of the cream of talent on Mars exploration, with years of training for which cost was no object. Instead, what we've got is a crew of a dozen or so volunteers - mainly undergraduate and graduate students - and a few computers jammed into cramped quarters to train up in a few weeks. But what we may be lacking in experience and funding, we make up for in heart. So far I have been impressed. As for how we will perform during the deployments, that remains to be seen.

But these restrictions are not a bad thing! In particular, I hope to come out of this experience with a scheme and some answers about how you might run a low-budget science-driven robotic mission with limited personnel and minimal training. Can it be done effectively? If not, how might it be improved? That knowledge might be an interesting selling point, not just for future PSD missions like MoonRise, but also for private exploration which will, by necessity, minimize the time commitment and size of the science team involved. So teams running for the Google Lunar X-Prize, take note! With luck, I'll present my results at this year's DPS. You can expect more updates down the road.

Since there are parallels in terms of mine and Canada's contributions, I was looking up quote sources for my title "Each according to his gifts" in researching this article. There are many variations and an incredible variety of sources including everything from the Bible to Lenin. However, it is Spock (from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") who sticks in my head. He responds to a question from his Captain asking how the cadets on-board the Enterprise will respond to a real-life situation with "As with all living things, each according to his gifts." That expression best captures my hopes for the summer ahead. Hopefully us "space cadets" at CPSX/UWO prove as resilient and make you all as proud of us as our movie counterparts.

It's interesting to note that while ESMD runs lots of big, expensive analogue deployments (including Pavillion Lake and the Desert Rats) but PSD runs very few. One of the challenges then has been adapting the Mars Exploration Program Mission Control Architecture (developed in PSD) to work as an analogue with people more used to ESMD-type operations. There is an interesting cultural difference in there that it has been educational for me to navigate. Thus, from my perspective, the project is already yielding valuable returns.

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