Dr. Margaret Yacobucci, geology, instructs Dr. Dean Eppler of NASA on the use of the tablet PC in the field.

Dr. Margaret Yacobucci, geology, instructs Dr. Dean Eppler of NASA on the use of the tablet PC in the field.

NASA learning from BGSU geologists' digital mapping program

NASA landed in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado this summer. Geology faculty and students from BGSU were there to meet them.

Each summer, the geology department teaches its field course in Colorado and New Mexico. The course includes about two dozen undergraduate geology majors, two professors and two graduate assistants. During the roughly six-week course, the students learn a variety of techniques including digital mapping—using ruggedized tablet computers in the field to plot geological information directly onto digital images such as an aerial photograph or topographic map.

This year, the field course had an unexpected visitor: NASA. “You folks are the only program in the country doing this type of digital mapping,” said Dr. Dean Eppler, a research scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Eppler’s mission is to design spacesuits and field equipment for NASA’s mission to return to the moon in 2020 and land the first scientists on Mars in 2030. Unlike the Apollo moon missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which focused mostly on life sciences—survival of the astronauts on the lunar surface—the new missions will be focused mainly on geology. The goal is to establish a permanent facility on the moon, where astronauts will live for up to six months at a time and will need to extract lunar resources to survive.

A geologist by training, Eppler spent a day in the field with the BGSU geology group learning how the tablet PC works as a mapping tool in demanding mountain conditions, at elevations of 11,000 feet. He was enthusiastic about the ease of use, particularly the stylus pen used to draw geological information on the interactive screen of the computer.

Eppler explained the practical difficulties of working in spacesuits and the limited range of mobility of spacesuit gloves. Working on the lunar or Martian surface will require elaborate and expensive suit fabrics, a combination of hard and soft points that are hinged to allow human movement, and a cooling system, which he characterized as more difficult to regulate than the supply of breathable gas. The tablet computer could also display some of the spacesuit functions to the astronauts.

The stylus pen system used by the BGSU geology group is far more functional than other systems NASA has investigated, which require a keyboard. “Imagine typing with tennis balls on the tips of your fingertips,” said Eppler, who was excited to see the BGSU tablet computers use a handwriting recognition program that transfers notes made with the stylus pen into printed text. This feature, combined with the differential Global Positioning System (GPS) and ArcGIS components of the program, would allow astronauts to annotate digital photographs of the lunar surface when taken in the field.

Bowling Green’s field geology course first used computers and GPS in 1996, “and we have continuously updated and expanded the use of technology since then,” said Dr. Jeffrey Snyder, co-director of the course.

“We hope to give the students an appreciation of the potential of computers to enhance field data collection,” he said, pointing out that the acquired skills can be applied to many different career paths.

Geological research on the moon will be for far more than extracting the resources needed for astronauts to survive. The lunar soil contains a record of the solar wind (the stream of particles from the sun), which has implications for understanding Earth’s climate and how space weather affects Earth-orbiting satellites. Lunar geology fills in several significant gaps in understanding the geological history of Earth and the early development of the solar system.

Why send people to the moon and Mars rather than robots? Eppler laughed and said: “Despite the success of the Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity, they have only traveled seven kilometers in the past four years. In contrast, the final Apollo flight (Apollo 17) had two trained astronauts who accomplished more in three days.”

“Many of the recent findings from Mars and the moon show significant similarities to the geology of Earth,” added Dr. James Evans, geology, who has taught the field course the past 16 years. “It is tremendously exciting to see that we can use the same tools and methods to study extraterrestrial geology.”

Eppler is trying to revive the field geology expertise that NASA used to have. Although the Apollo astronauts were test pilots by training, each had received more than 1,000 hours of geology instruction. They became so skilled, he said, that they actually corrected their Earth-bound flight controllers about which geological features they were observing. But with many of those astronauts and their trainers now in their 70s or 80s, much experience will soon be lost, he noted, suggesting half-seriously that the new class of astronauts be sent to the BGSU geology field camp for training.

Eppler also made the Bowling Green students an offer, saying he would help replace the leather cases used to carry the tablet computers with new ones made from decertified spacesuit materials.

Just another way of emphasizing the planetary aspect of the geosciences.

July 7, 2008