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Full Speed Ahead

by Suzanne M. M. Young

January 11, 2008 -
Greetings -- this time not from an airport!  Shocking, huh?!  Well, I’ll be on a plane in a week going out to our 8th Operations Readiness Test and playing the SPI again….but I won’t be returning until February so that’s when you’ll get news from that…from another airport along the way!

Today I’m at my house, but doing a bit of basking in the progress of my team.  Before Christmas I took stock of where we stand -- all we’ve done and all we need to do -- and then I developed all the final experiments to conclude the Tufts portion of the MECA-WCL Characterization.  I am so amazed. We only have a few things left to do. But, of course, they are the most detrimental things!  We have to start trying the ugly stuff that can be damaging so that if we get that on Mars we recognize it.

We need to do tests of calibrating the Br- ISE and the I- ISE, and determining the selectivity of those ions. Those are considered ‘ugly’ tests because once the Br ions go in, the Cl- ISE will convert to be a Br- ISE, and then once the I ions go in, both the Cl- and the Br- ISEs will convert to become I- ISEs. There’s no going back from those tests. And then lastly, we need to try out soluble iron ions -- both ferric (3+) and ferrous (2+) states. Those ions can be damaging to ISEs as well. So I developed tests to try calibrating the ISEs with several different concentrations of the iron ions as background. Then thus concludes the Characterization of WCL!  We did the easy stuff, the hard stuff, the gentle stuff, and now we’ll finish off with the evil stuff!

Between Christmas and New Years, my entire staff was gone. So my mom and I went into lab to clean it up, set up the new experiments, get the supplies ready, and the space ready. I put the salts for the tests drying in the oven so they’d be well dried and ready when my staff returned all refreshed and ready to fly.  (Just want moms wants to do on her vacation, you know -- come clean my lab with me!  Well, it was okay, and I took her for a really lovely meal out afterwards!)  I actually deeply enjoy those few days when absolutely no one else is around.  They are really good thinking days. I love my staff completely, but some solitude once a year is very good thinking time.

And now since New Year’s, I’ve had the astounding good fortune to get some of the extra summer staff back. They were absolute stars. It was the best summer we’ve ever had with the high volume and the highest quality work being accomplished. And both Lee and Greg returned to my lab for just wee bits of their break in semesters. Greg comes home from Rochester, and Lee comes home from Texas. Nothing better could have happened to start this year. In mere days, each of them completed entire suites of testing. They are so good anyhow, but even better being able to walk into lab and not need training. I am so grateful to them for giving me some time on their vacations. Our whole staff was joyous at their return. They are really part of the family now as far as we are all concerned.  It was so valuable having them.

Lee, who is just a star - does efficient, excellent, and meticulous work in lab - accomplished the harsh halogen tests. All behaved exactly as expected, but they were incredibly important tests to do. Thanks to Lee, there are only 2 more tests in the official Characterization pile - and those Po, our group geochemist, will be able to do probably this month. I'll teach Po this coming week and we are still cruising. We are in absolutely top shape.

And Greg finished some really interesting work I have wanted to see for years. He works on our Mars Chamber and under Mars conditions bled in Ammonia (simulating the byproduct from the catalytic decomposition of hydrazine in the Phoenix thrusters) onto a suite of samples I had.  Actually, I had gathered some samples on my mother-daughter summer holiday to Iceland a couple years back. I got some excellent basalt sands from a beach -- complete with a bit of salt from the sea on them. And I got some iron oxide regolith from a very interesting geologically active area in the interior where we saw all kinds of geothermal activities (and smelled them too!) We made samples with various amounts of iced and dry and mixed combinations of these. I knew the ice would suck up the ammonia -- all the beautiful hydrogen bonding possibilities are ever so attractive to each other! But the real question was about its interaction with the regoliths and what if the ice is in or under it and so forth. For example, if regolith is sitting on top of ice or has ice within it, will the ice manage to pull my ammonia to the regolith or would it pull it off the regolith and sequester it in the ice away from the regolith, etc. The short answer is EVERYTHING -- every configuration and formulation -- even bone dry regolith -- picks up the ammonia and holds it more than long than it will take to do an analysis!  Stuff with ice does pick up a greater concentration of ammonia, but all samples had some. So it’s DEFINITELY something we need to very carefully analyze with our ammonia ISE. I knew it would be. We have now enhanced our understanding. Thanks to Greg and his party balloons full of ammonia.  That’s how he has to bring the ammonia to the lab -- from a tank in another lab. He fills balloons and then attaches a balloon to the Mars Chamber and bleeds it in. Oddly enough, when I sent the lab staff to the shop for the balloons for ammonia, they seemed to need some water balloons too!  I haven’t seen them use those, which is a good thing — means they’ve not thrown them at me! -- but somethings I think I don’t want to know!  They should all have fun and laugh a bit during each day!  They are funny kids. Last sumer they sterilized a pack of Kalina’s gum to test out the sterilization chamber.  And they completely deflated a marshmellow to test the vacuum pump of the Mars Chamber. None of these little things hurt anything, but gives them all a big laugh and lots of fun to have just to talk about. We do have good fun with all that’s done in lab.  

Anyhow, thanks to the regular team and the extra help from Lee and Greg, we are well on track. There are only 2 tests left to finish off my massive Characterization mandate. It has been 2 long years and loads of work. Of course, now I have a massive job of gathering it all appropriately to go on the team site so everyone can view it and use it! That’s not near done. But the work is concluding. We MADE IT!!! Yippee, Yahoo! I can hardly believe it. By the time I get back from ORT8, I expect it will all be done and I just have heaps of paper work to do on it.

BUT that does not mean lab work is over. We have the Cataloguing samples to do. We have bunches of simulants and geological samples to try in exactly the fashion we’ll run the experiments on Mars. That’s actually a pretty significant chunk of work. And we do have in mind some other tests that probably should have been in the inch thick book we wrote of Characterization testing, but wasn’t there -- sometimes in part because we improved the resources available along the way and so can do some better testing than we thought, like having a glove box now -- in which we want to create a Mars like partial pressure of CO2. All of that is work for this semester.

As you may have been reading in Peter’s blog, he took a team of 6 to the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, Sam among them, so I expect loads of samples for us to work on to come back from there. That will be very interesting work.

Happy New Year! This is THE year -- our year -- we land! And we started off the year with a most remarkable message from our Mission Manager. He congratulated us and wished us all well, and pointed out that we have crossed the half way point to Mars! With every passing day we are closing in on Mars!!! Wow! 2008! What a year this is going to be!!! We’ve started by hitting the ground running and the pen is poised to dot our final i’s and final t’s.  

I start teaching Analytical Chemistry next week, so I better go work out a syllabus. I’ve been too busy with my mind fully on Mars for several weeks now. I need to check in with Earth. (When my 3 year old nephew, who has been so into space toys since I gave him a LEGO model of the Phoenix - and who got a rocket taller than he is for Christmas - gets off the phone with me, he asks his dad, "Is Aunt Suz on the moon?" And his dad says things like, "Oh, yeh, and much further out than that!" And, under his breath says, "Always has been!")

Very Happy New Year!

Suzanne