Monday, May 21, 2012

Practice makes Perfect (WW113)

Dr. Dean Eppler, space suit expert and 2011 Science Lead for the NASA Desert RATS Team sat down with our own Marianne Mader at LPSC this year and you'll have the chance to hear that interview later on tonight. Much of what they talked about focused on something called "Analogue Missions" which are practice space missions completed on Earth. Why would you want to hold such an exercise? Well, for one thing it's much cheaper to conduct a space mission on the Earth and much safer for the astronauts. That means that you can try lots of different tools and techniques to figure out what works and what doesn't.

This is important because astronaut time is extraordinarily valuable. Say you could design, build and deliver a capable lunar rover for ~$1b and that the median expected lifetime on the lunar surface was something like 5 years. With 8 hours of ops per day (average), that gives us an hourly cost of something like $100k/hour. However, a mission to the moon for two weeks (~70 hrs EVA) might cost something like ~$10b/astronaut. So that's about $100m/hour for humans. If we assume a Phoenix-like multiplier, i.e. that 152 sols of operations could have been conducted in a couple of hours by humans, you get that human time is ~600 times more productive than is robot time. Call it an even 1000 times. Thus, the cost per datum gathered is about the same, but an hour of human time wasted is equivalent to over four months of robot time wasted, so even a small cost in human time is extremely expensive. Worse, you loose the contemplation time that robots give you to convince yourself and the rest of the science team that you are making the correct decisions.

One of the focuses for D-RATS is to find ways to make that human time more productive through innovative use of technology. Often they test combinations of different tools, rovers and humans working cooperatively and so on. It's a challenging problem on many levels and D-RATS aren't the only team trying to improve our knowledge here. We've done a couple of analogue missions here at Western for the CSA which I am proud to say I've been a part of as a Co-Investigator (and have written about before in this space). You can read more about our activities at our "Anablog" and our first paper discussing how we ran mission control can be found here. If you're in the D.C. Area, why not go and listen to WW Co-Host Raymond Francis talk a little bit about how rovers and humans interacted at the GLEX Conference?

Want to know more? My intro is under the cut and don't forget to tune into Western Worlds on at 10PM tonight after 365 Days of Astronomy and the News.

Every day, we get a little bit closer to the kind of expertise and the kind of experience we're going to need to go there. I'd love to be the guy walking on Mars. You’re listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week, as every week, from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University, located 129 days travel by ROC-6 Rover from the Black Point Lava Field, in London, Ontario, Canada.

Space Missions, especially those that involve Astronauts are costly affairs. Our human explorers need extensive supplies and support if they are to carry out their missions and their time spent in remote locations is therefore limited. As such, it behooves us to try and figure out ahead of time what equipment they will need and how best to use that equipment to answer our scientific questions about other worlds. It is an integral part of what space agencies do and it is an ideal we get closer to achieving with each passing day, as our opening quote by Astronaut John Phillips implies.

There exist many different kinds of tests that can be done more cheaply and more safely here on earth. The largest and most elaborate of these tests are essentially space missions that take place on Earth. Called analogue missions, these dry runs test how all the systems that astronauts will use operate together and are a critical part of determining how we will meet the challenges of working in space by figuring out what works, and perhaps more importantly, what does not.

Here at Western University, we have conducted several of these Analogue Missions over the years, however, not surprisingly, NASA maintains several standing programs including the well know Desert Research and Technology Studies Team of Desert RATS for short. The Team runs field tests of human-robotic systems, extravehicular equipment and operations for operating on harsh planetary surfaces.

A long-standing member of that team and its Science Operations Lead in 2011 is Dr. Dean Eppler who sat down with our own Marianne Mader at this year’s LPSC. A geologist by training, Dr. Eppler’s specialty is breaking down exactly what it is that a scientist does in the field to understand and explore a new location. By isolating each component, new and more efficient ways can be found to use astronaut time and develop techniques for exploration. In his career, he has also made significant contributions to the development and use of space suits.

Analogues are important work, for as Harriet Martineau once said “You had better live your best, act your best and think your best today for today is the sure preparation for tomorrow and all the other tomorrows that follow.” We here at Western Worlds appreciate the insight we receive from all of our guests. Many of us are training to play comparable roles in our own professional lives and therefore these interviews help us to prepare for our own careers. Tonight’s Music “Lunch with the King” by Thomas Newman pays tribute to this sentiment. With that thought, sit back, relax and enjoy tonight’s interview. 

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