In June, Dr Ian Hawes, from Christchurch’s Canterbury University will be part of a team working at the Pavilion Lake analogue site (access Facebook page here). He will be part of an international, collaborative science and exploration team investigating microbialites – rocks formed by microbes – and at the same time developing protocols for real-time management of science activities in missions to near earth asteroids (NEAs) and more distant objects. Microbially mediated rocks have a special place in astrobiology since on Earth they are the very earliest evidence of life, and on other planets where life began and then stopped they may be the only evidence left.

This is the latest in a series of analogue missions to be undertaken at Pavilion Lake, and this year simulation scenarios link divers working underwater on the microbialites to a shore team, in ways that mimic the interactions that would occur between exploration astronauts and an earth-based science support team.

The underwater environment is a great analogue for space; it is 3-dimensional, divers have life support concerns and limited time on station, and communication and dexterous movements can be challenging due to the protective clothing and equipment that is required.

At Pavilion Lake, divers (astronauts) will be connected to, and communicating with, a support vessel (orbiting vehicle), which in turn is in contact with a shore-based mission control and science support team (Earth). The last link has a restricted communication bandwidth and a built-in communications delay (from 90 seconds to 5 minutes). Given these constraints, how can we best manage feedback between earth and astronaut to optimise the science activities? NASA will deploy the latest updates of a sophisticated Exploration Ground Data System (xDGS) that allows real-time locations of divers and ROVs to be tracked and voice, text and imagery annotations to be overlain on a 3-D map of the lake.

Remotely operated vehicles will build detail in xDGS and allow areas of interest to be identified, and divers will then be guided by the back room team in sampling of those key areas.

Microbialites on the floor of Pavilion Lake, British Columbia. They are formed from calcite (calcium carbonate), almost certainly with help from photosynthetic microorganisms.

It all sounds simple, but imagine yourself sitting on the bottom of a lake and having to wait for 3 minutes every time you need an answer to a question on what to do next – all of the time watching the pressure on your air supply slowly creeping down and your dive computer starting to tell you that there is only 5 minutes before it is “time to surface”. Determining how we can organise ourselves to get the best science results under such pressures and constraints is the exploration focus of this mission.

It all starts on 20th June. Watch the space for more details!

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