11 April 2008

Success in the Mojave!

Tuesday, 08 April 2008
Cave Detection in the Thermal Infrared
NASA Spaceward Bound!

Image: QWIP thermal image of Pis-gah lava flow. Top left of image is non-cave feature, which is within a sandy exposure. Our cave (where we were collecting temperature and barometric pressure data) is in the bottom right. There are other features glowing purple which represent a series of holes. Some of these are actual caves, while others may be too small for a human to enter (without getting stuck). Dark blue = very cool, light yellow = very warm. Credit: NASA-GSFC.

Golly, breakfast did come early. The dinner bell sounded at 7:00 AM. I didn’t get to sleep until almost 1:00 AM, and being beat from the wind and little sleep in the field, I was a little haggard. Fortunately, Eric whipped up a great breakfast. So, I got the day started with a hearty meal.

Image: I was giving my progress report to the team at Zzyzx Field Station. Credit: Jennifer Small.

During breakfast, Murzy called. Grounding the computer worked!!! The computer had collected imagery over the night and was still logging! What great news! It looked like we were going to get 24 hours worth of data after all.

After breakfast, we had our meeting. With each Spaceward Bound, the group would meet and discuss progress made in the field and the scientists would report their plans for the day. This gives the students an opportunity to decide who they wanted to work.

Image: Penny, Bill and I discussing the plan of attack for the day. Credit: Jennifer Small.

We were quite fortunate. Most of the teachers wanted to work with the cave scientists. I am very pleased that so many people were interested in caves. The cave team was comprised of Drs. Penny Boston and Mike Spilde (who were in charge of the cave microbe sampling demo), the cave detection team (Murzy, Glen and myself), and Bill Liebman (a good friend, long-time caver and geologist). Once we got our bearings straight, we loaded up the trucks and vans and headed for Pis-gah.

Image: I was discussing with the Spaceward Bound team what the Cave Detection Crew had been doing over the past four days. Credit: Jennifer Small.

Penny and Mike were going to demonstrate how to sample cave microbes and explain why cave microbes are important to astrobiology. Glen, Murzy and I will discuss what we did for the past three days at Pis-gah. Also, Bill and I were going to enlist some assistance from a few teachers to pull our data loggers, and the rest of the group would go with Penny and Mike.

Image: Explaining the HoboPro data loggers, placement in the cave, and why this is important to characterizing cave thermal behavior. Credit: Jennifer Small.

Bill and I had the opportunity to work with Vienna, Fatma and Nicole. We went to our first cave to collect our temperature sensors. Before we entered the cave, Bill and I discussed caving ethics and cave safety with them. This was their first time in a cave, so we wanted to make sure they understood the fragility of cave systems and they were aware of the risks associated with working underground. I think it was a lot of fun for them. Once we pulled our sensors from the first cave, the students went on to join Penny and Mike. They wanted to learn how to sample for cave microbes.

Image: Nicole, myself and others (out of frame) joking about something before entering the cave. Image: Jennifer Small.

Bill and I continued on to our non-cave feature and our last cave to retrieve our data loggers. It was great to hang out and cave with Bill again. While I did have the opportunity to spend time with him at the NSS Convention in Indiana last July, we didn’t get in any time underground. So, we hiked across the lava flow, went to these two features, chatted quite a bit, and pulled the data loggers. Once done, we headed back to the vehicles.

A while later, Penny, Mike and about 20 students returned. We said our goodbyes, and Glen and I headed for Flagstaff. The mission was a success.

Image: As we were leaving our study area, Glen spotted this rattler on the road. Species: Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). This beauty was about four feet long.

Computer Failure -- One More Try

Monday, 07 April 2008
Cave Detection in the Thermal Infrared
NASA Spaceward Bound!

Image: Checking out the camera. Credit: Glen Cushing.

After a somewhat restful sleep in the truck, I got up and climbed atop the cinder cone to check on the camera, generator, and Glen. Everything seemed okay. However, Glen didn’t get much sleep on account of the wind. He decided to sleep in, and I headed back down to the truck to fix breakfast.

A few hours past, and Murzy arrived. He and I then went back up to check on our data collect. Well…we then learned the computer had crashed. We set the software program to batch all files (i.e., each image taken) and write them to the disk at the end of the sampling period. At this point, we had been logging data for almost 18 hours. We lost all of our data.

Image: Camera Sampling Station atop Pis-gah Crater.

So, we had to restart our data collect. About this time, two trucks arrived and they were loaded down with people. As I saw them preparing to go to the caves, I went down to chat with them. I found out they were a Boy Scout Troop from Los Angeles and were planning on camping in one of the caves --- one of our caves! Well, this was not good for the mission. After speaking with them and describing our project, they agreed not to stay in one of our sample caves and they decided to camp elsewhere.

I felt really bad that we had foiled their camping plans. So, I offered to lead the Scouts into one of the caves. I gave them the caving ethics lecture, and I also discussed the fragility of cave ecosystems. I also provided a context for our research, why were studying caves in the Mojave and what types of critters we may expect to find on Mars (provided life ever evolved there).

Image: one of the MANY cave-like features that were appearing as warm spots on the thermal image.

Once this was done, we went back up to check on the computer. Well, it crashed again, and we couldn’t figure out why. We did change the settings on the software to save each image as it collected. So, we did have two hours of data at this point. We restarted the machine and started the collect once again.

Glen and I were planning to spend the night at

Zzyzx Field Station

. Spaceward Bound was already underway, and I wanted to see all my friends and thank Chris McKay and Liza Coe for all their help with our project. I was rather reluctant to leave Pis-gah because we were having computer issues.

Murzy agreed to stay until around 8:00 pm. He wanted to keep an eye on the equipment and insure everything was running properly. We received a call from him indicating the computer crashed yet again. We were all very concerned that we were not going to get our data. Two hours later, Murzy called again and said he thought he figured out the problem. The computer and generator was not grounded. There were high winds and a lot of aeolian sand was beating against our computer and generator. With each grain of sand that hit this equipment, it brought with it a tiny static charge. He thought the static electricity reached a threshold on the computer (and/ or the generator). When this occurred, it would shock the system and the computer would crash. He decided to ground the machine and cross his fingers.

Seeing the entire Spaceward Bound team was awesome. I’ve worked with these good folks in northern Chile for the

2006 Spaceward Bound, Atacama Desert Expedition

and the

2007 Spaceward Bound, Mojave Desert Expedition

. So, it was really good to see everyone.

We had an excellent dinner at Zzyzx. Eric, the field station’s chef, is a culinary wizard, and the grub was incredible (as always). Thereafter, I visited with everyone and we stayed up late chatting about the expedition, our progress in the field and our plans for Tuesday. It is very late, and I now need to go to bed.

Will the Computer Work?

Sunday, 06 April 2008
Cave Detection in the Thermal Infrared
NASA Spaceward Bound!

Image: QWIP Thermal Imaging Camera

Murzy arrived in Barstow on Sunday morning and then we caravanned back out to Pis-gah. Our plans for the day were to set up the camera, and find one more cave with an entrance that was facing towards the cinder cone (which was the location of the camera). Once we hauled all the equipment up the cinder cone, Murzy and Glen set up the camera, and Matt and I hiked out onto the lava flow to find the a cave facing toward the cinder cone (i.e., the camera).

Our objective was to set up the QWIP thermal imaging camera atop the cinder cone to collect thermal images over a 24 hour period. While this may seem like a rather straight forward and simply exercise, it was not free of hurdles. Our concerns for running the experiment were (a) the gas-powered generator may run out of gas during the sampling period and interrupt data collection and (b) the QWIP camera would fail (it has yet to be operable for 24 hours straight). One minor oversight, we did expect any problems from our ruggedized Dell computer.

Before we could do this, we wanted to set up the camera and the computer to make sure everything worked. Image: Matt Allner.

Well, the winds blew hard all day. However, the team was successful. The sampling station atop the crater was set up, and Matt and I were more or less successful in selecting a cave. While we did not find a cave entrance that faced directly towards the camera, we did find one that was somewhat facing towards the cinder cone.

Image: Mapping locations of data loggers placed within cave. Credit: Matt Allner.

Matt and I were in radio contact with the camera team all day. We had to do this to make sure our cave and the non-cave feature were both within the frame of the camera. Once we were able to do this, Matt and I headed for the cinder cone. Thereafter, we began to test the camera. All our equipment was operational. So, we set the computer and camera to collect thermal images every 10 minutes over a 24 hour period.

Once the day was done, Matt’s work was also. He had to leave for Zyzxx Field Station to meet the Spaceward Bound folks. Matt was flying back to Colorado early Monday AM.

Image: Glen, Murzy and Glen's tent atop Pis-gah Crater.

When setting up the camera, Glen offered to use his tent as a wind break and as a good place to keep the computer. So, it looked like at least one of us was going to camp atop the cinder cone. Murzy accidentally returned to Barstow for the night, and I later realized he had my tent in his car. So, I was going to sleep in the truck again.

Howling Winds and the Pis-gah

Saturday, 05 April 2008
Cave Detection in the Thermal Infrared
NASA Spaceward Bound!

Image: Pis-gah lava flow.

We rose slowly on Saturday AM. Around 0330 hr, the winds began to howl. The winds were whipping through our camp site and rattling our tents. I chose to put the storm fly on my tent the night before because I realized it was going to be chilly. I wanted to retain the extra heat that the fly would provide. Well, as y’all already know, the fly also creates a lot of noise in high winds. I woke up at 0330 and then again at 0430. By this time, the winds were stronger. I realized that if I didn’t get out of the wind, I was not going to get any sleep. So, I ultimately decided to break down my tent, empty the truck and sleep inside it. I finally got some sleep; however, the truck did rock quite a bit in the wind.

When we got up, we learned Matt’s tent had collapsed on him during the early morning hours. He awoke disoriented with the tent on top of him. It’s not a fun way to wake up. This has happened to me before and it is rather disorienting.

We decided to finish breaking camp and the Preserve and head to the Bagdad Café in Newberry Springs. Before we could go into the field, I needed to launch sensors and enter coordinates to all of our cave and non-cave features into a GPS. We had breakfast, and used this as our base of operations for a couple of hours. Once we ironed out our field logistics, we headed for Pis-gah.

Our objective for today was to select two caves and one cave like feature for our experiments. We were hopeful that we could also find one cave and one cave-like feature that fit within the field of view of our thermal imaging camera and that would be facing in the direction of the camera.

Image: Glen Cushing and Pis-gah lava flow cave.

So, we headed out across the lava flow and evaluated caves and non-cave features. We ultimately settled upon one cave and one cave-like feature and we deployed our temperature sensors. We finished our work at Pis-gah around 1800 hr. Because we had only one field vehicle on site (the other was at the Bagdad Cafe), we had to return to Newberry Springs to retrieve the other vehicle. The wind was intense all day long and was picking up in the waning sunlight. None of us were overly eager to set up camp in the wind, nor were we looking forward to staying up all night as our tents were being beaten by the high winds.

Image: Matt preparing to deploy one of our weather stations. This device logs barometric pressure, temperature and relative humidity.

We ultimately decided to get out of the wind and head to the Holiday Inn Express in Barstow. Because working underground can be extremely hazardous, we wanted to be sure we were well rested. Besides, we were meeting Murzy on Sunday and it made sense to simply meet him in Barstow.

Image: Glen exiting one of our study caves. Credit: Matt Allner.

NASA Spaceward Bound, Mojave Expedition and Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program

Friday, 04 April 2008
Cave Detection in the Thermal Infrared
NASA Spaceward Bound!

Image: Barrel cactus in the Mojave.

Our objectives of this mission to the Mojave was several fold: (1) collect thermal imagery over a 24 hour period to examine changes in detectability over a diurnal cycle; (2) iron out any problems with a new QWIP thermal imaging camera (developed by NASA-Goddard) before we hire an airplane to conduct overflights of caves in Hawaii; (3) obtain a better understanding regarding sensor placement in cave entrances and how this reflects actual cave entrance temperatures, and; (4) work with NASA Spaceward Bound! participants to show them how we are developing techniques to detect caves on Earth, the Moon and Mars.

Our team was comprised of Glen Cushing (the discoverer of cave-like features on Arsia Mons, Mars), Murzy Jhabvala (chief engineer, NASA-Goddard), and Matt Allner (University of North Dakota, space science graduate student). I have worked with all of these folks in various capacities over the past few years, and I am really looking forward to working with them again.

Image: Chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus) on the lava flow. This lizard was about 1.5 feet long. This animal has a unique defensive mechanism. To avoid predation, it wedges itself within a crack or between two rocks and then inflats itself. Once the animal does this, it is virtually impossible to remove it. To demonstrate this, I touched the lizard once it was wedged in the rock. It makes a hissings sound as it inflates. Very cool, indeed!

Our plan was to collect imagery over a 24-hr period of a cave and non-cave feature. We want to know how these features behave thermally and try to gain insights into whether they behave in a similar manner. This is important of two reasons. Firstly, when applying thermal cave detection techniques to Mars and targeting caves that may be of interest from the perspective of their potential to harbor life, big caves are going to be of greater interest. Larger caves will be more protected and thus more likely to contain evidence of past or perhaps current life forms (provided, of course, life ever evolved on the Red Planet). This being the case, NASA will want to be able to differentiate between small caves and large caves – especially, if we plan to send rovers into these features one day. Secondly, non-cave features (alcoves, collapse pits, small tunnels, etc.) are going to be important targets for NASA for both the Moon and Mars. These features may be important for establishing temporary or perhaps permanent shelters for astronaut crews.

Image: Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris) in bloom.

We also wanted to test the new QWIP camera, which was recently made for Goddard to Murzy’s specifications. We are planning to overfly pit craters on Hawaii (which are strikingly similar to the features on Arsia Mons), and we wanted to make sure we had all the kinks ironed out, before we hired a plane and pilot. The last thing we want to do is deal with a myriad of technical issues, while we’re paying for flight time. Hopefully, by doing our homework in advance, we our Hawaiian overflight mission will be smoother.

Based on work we did in New Mexico and northern Arizona, results from our cave thermal behavior models suggested data from our temperature sensors placed in the cave entrance represent where the sensor was placed rather than the actual cave entrance temperature (we’re working on a paper, which we hope to have in review within the next few months). So, to test this hypothesis, we will place multiple sensors in the entrances of at least two caves. We will then take these data from the different sensors, subject them to a battery of statistical tests, and see if the temperature values are significantly different.

Finally, we are conducting these experiments in collaboration with NASA Spaceward Bound. The purpose of this project is to have scientists (who researching questions related to the development of techniques to the search for life on other objects within our solar system) train and work with science teachers. The hope is through this interaction, the teachers will generate teaching ideas to enhance their space science curriculum. This year, participants will either be pursuing a Bachelors or Masters degree in education with a science emphasis. So, my plan will be to demonstrate our thermal detection techniques, and show them how we are studying cave thermal behavior so that we may ultimately develop techniques for detecting caves on Earth, the Moon and Mars.

Glen and I left Flagstaff Friday afternoon. We met Matt in the Mojave National Preserve. We selected an excellent campsite in a thick yucca forest. It is mid-spring and the wild flowers were in bloom. The desert is a verdant green. It is a beautiful place to be, and even a better place to wake up in the morning.