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A helo flight to prepare for next year

Posted on July 23rd, 2010 by Marc Seibert

On the way back from Kelly Lake, we swung by Pavilion Lake to take some shots of the live sub operations underway. This is a very beautiful part of the world.

Next year the team will be diving into a lake called Kelly Lake, and potentially Pavilion Lake at the same time.  This creates a challenge for the communications team.  Both sites must have broadband access to the Space Network Research Federation (SNRF) and the Internet, and be able to communicate from site to site at all times.

Satellite connectivity is great, but in this environment the “terrain mask” (steep rise of the terrain all around us) makes it difficult to hit a satcom “bird” in the sky from these high northern latitudes.  On top of this, satellite transponder time can be expensive (especially considering the amount of “megahertz” or transponder we need!), and adds a significant “latency” to the communications link (in both directions) because the satellites are orbiting so far above the Earth.  This latency can cause problems for some of the operations conducted by this team, and terrestrial interfaces tend to have very low latency.

We took a Trackstick with us in the helicopter, and you can see the path we flew here (thanks to Google Earth!)

So we took off in a helicopter in Lillooet, and flew to Kelly Lake to visit and survey the terrestrial (ground/mountain-based) communications options for communications near the lake.  If we can avoid using a satcom link, we’ll have greater bandwidth and network performance at the 2011 test operations.

We found several options for connectivity or relay on a few mountains surrounding Kelly Lake, and even some options to link the two lakes together for next year’s mission.  This begins a year’s worth of planning “now”.  ; )

- Marc

Pavilion Lake, looking south

One of the DeepWorker chase boats, looking south.

Incredible Communications at Pavilion Lake

Posted on July 7th, 2009 by Marc Seibert

[Bekah, talking to Marc at Desert RATS 2008] “Hey – let me ask you something…  Ok, so we have this lake up in Canada that is really long, really deep, is surrounded by steep walls and lots of trees, and has some really cool ‘microbialite’ structures in it!”

[Marc] ok? [thinking: Microbe-o-light? Sounds like a really small flashlight like thingy – maybe these things glow and give off light. ; ) does the lake bottom glow? Can it be seen from space? Can we communicate with it? I’m always looking for new technology to communicate – maybe these microbe-o-light’s are the next [OLEDs]!! Bummer: Turns out they’re not – they don’t emit photons at all. ]

[Bekah, continues (summarized)] “We’re studying the ‘morphology’ of the structures on the lake floor, and the way we study them is similar to how we’ll study things on Mars when we send people there…”

[Marc] How cool is that! [thinking: Good for you, sounds like cool science – but I’m not a microbialite scientist – how can our team help?]

[Bekah] We need communications. We want to link the underwater operations to people on the shore for the first time during the sub operations. We want them to interact, and understand the best ways to do things. [enthusiastically] Can we get video from the submarines back to the shore???

[Marc] maybe – can we drag a buoy behind the sub? [thinking: then you can have video!]

[Marc, thinking, reading into Bekah’s comments and from conversations in NASA Analog Mission meetings] Ok, it’s been stated and restated to me but I finally get it. Imagine we send humans back to the moon or to Mars, and every second that a person is on the planet costs lot of money – so we want to make it very valuable. We expect that on planetary missions. In this project, microbiolite science is the end product, and the team members are working on advance degrees, etc. HOWEVER, learning how to explore a planetary body while they are collecting their science products is also a key part of their research, AND a very cool approach. What surprises me most is the PLRP team could simply study these structures and go home – but instead they want to combine their exploration of this lake in a manner that will make planetary exploration much better when humans are involved. This makes their day much longer, requires much more coordination and planning, and makes end-to-end processes more strict. But they do it. Humans will advance. How cool is that? Wow.]

We got an enthusiastic go-ahead from NASA HQ to do this work together, and build on it. So here we are!

The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) team already had a significant amount of momentum before the comm team arrived. They have been studying this lake for years – but big things are ahead. My team is new here, and we’re working just to catch up. We’re learning how this team works, how they study their samples, how they interact with the sub flights, how they wash dishes, and how well they eat – thanks to Dana (she should be cooking for Olympic Athletes).

So, from a communications perspective, the Exploration-relevant topic we’re concerned about is: “how much communication between human explorers and Earth is necessary to “maximize” amount of things we learn about the planet?”

Ask yourself (or your students) this: When we send people back to the moon then to Mars, how often do you think Earth needs to talk to them to accomplish the mission? (Keep in mind that today we are in almost constant contact with our Crews orbiting Earth)

After all the missions we’ve had to the moon and to Earth’s orbit, this is the core question we’re asking ourselves, again. Every answer to this question has a different cost to the public and associated complexity (and risk) to the mission. For example, continuous communication to explorers is really nice to have, but has a significant cost and complexity to achieve – do we really need it? Is it required for safety? For science? How much bandwidth is needed for science data downlink to Earth? How fast does Earth need the science or navigation data to assist the explorers? We’re trying to answer these questions in analog missions.

For this PLRP mission, we’ve procured a big Internet data pipe along the lake, and we’re slinging it wirelessly across the lake using a high-power, “meshing” WiFi technology, to enable data to pass from the explorers out in the Nuytco subs back to the “control center” on shore. This is a big lake, and “illuminating” big chunks of the lake with “broadband” data is really challenging, so we’re moving our gear daily to maximize performance for the scientists, day by day.

We’re also working this year to allow teams in the command center to hear the comments live from the scientist-pilots. We believe this will help the science annotation process be more efficient. To improve upon this, next year we plan to allow the CAPCOM in the command center to talk to the sub pilots in real time, and if we get our wish, we hope to have live video from the subs in the command center as well!