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Pavilion Lake and Beyond: How to Effectively Explore Other Worlds?

Posted on July 7th, 2010 by Mike Gernhardt

Mike Gernhardt with the DeepWorker barge in the background

This is my third year as a submarine pilot/scientist on the Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) and it is really exciting and informative to be part of this team and to watch the progression and trends in the science and operational methods that are being applied to this expedition.  I originally became involved in the PLRP because of the use of the dual DeepWorker submersible system as an operational analog to the dual Lunar Electric Rover system that my team at NASA is developing.  The really special thing about PLRP is that it’s not a simulation, its real world-class science and the methods that we use to plan the flights collect and analyze the data, and the lessons we learn are directly relevant to future space exploration. It’s also pretty cool that we are seeing things that human eyes have never seen before and in that sense it’s analogous to finding life on Mars or some other planet.

Mike Gernhardt and Bill Todd (front) work as CapCom on the surface vehicle, while Steve Wittig (back) captains the nav boat

The main contributions of our NASA Exploration Analogs and Mission Development team (EAMD) are to perform the operational research necessary to characterize the productivity and effectiveness of the operation and then systematically analyze the data and use the results to refine the operational methods over a multi-year period with the aim of achieving the highest level of scientific return from the human and machine assets deployed during the expedition.  To this end we have developed a variety of metrics that characterize the data, and observation quality along with the operational performance and timeline data.  These metrics are then correlated with the scientific merit metrics that we have developed with the PLRP team to understand the right balance between operational discipline and scientific flexibility. Is the right answer going to be totally rigid flight plans and flight rules to control every minute or the exploration dives, or complete scientific flexibility to explore whatever seems most interesting at the time? Probably neither,  the optimal mix is most likely  somewhere in between and this multi-year research program provides a unique opportunity to find that optimal mix here on earth so that we don’t have to learn those lesson out in space were the expense and consequences are much higher.

-Mike

Mike Gernhardt, ready for deployment in DeepWorker.

flying a submersible… just like riding a bicycle

Posted on July 6th, 2009 by Mike Gernhardt

This was my first Deepworker flight since last year, and I was pleased that flying the submersibles came back similar to skiing or riding a bicycle. We have been planning the science and operational metrics for this expedition for many months now, and it was both fun and exciting to get back into the water and execute the plan for real. I was constantly marveling at how cool it was to be seeing things that human eyes have never seen before, like exploring Mars or time warping back to pre-Cambrian oceans with today’s technology. It was great to be back working with the PLRP team, an extremely talented group that work together seamlessly to execute some very complex operations, which are helping us understand the optimal blending of science and operations in hostile environments as we get ready for the coming decades of planetary exploration.

The objectives of my dive today included contour mapping a part of the central basin that we have not seen before at 30 meters and 15 meters. It’s both challenging and fun to fly these contours. One of the more challenging aspects to learn was learning to fly only with my feet. The right foot is used to control direction and the left foot controls depth. With your left foot, push down with your right toe and you go forward, down with the right heel and you go backwards, twist right to turn right, twist left to turn left. With your right foot, push down with your left toe to dive, right heel to ascend. Then you blend all of those inputs to fly around various microbialite structures and contact lines, while simultaneously using your right hand to control the manipulator arm that positions the camera and your left had to operate the camera zoom and/ or the sonar, all the time while making observations and narrating into a voice recorder. If it sounds like a heavy workload, it is, and one of the things we are doing this year for the first time at PLRP is recording subjective human factors of the workload to compare with the quality of the objective and subjective data. By doing this, we will understand if factors like pilot fatigue play a role in the quality of science and exploration data obtained from the subs. In addition to be ground breaking science on earth, all of this contributes to the effort to help design the human factors of next generation of planetary surface exploration vehicles that optimize our ability to perform planetary exploration.

-Mike