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HPA students assist NASA with experiment

Six researchers from the HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) team experiment recently toured HPA’s Energy Lab and met with students who are assisiting with the project. The researchers are pictured with Dr. Bill Wiecking (standing, left), director of the Energy Lab at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, and his students. (Photo courtesy of HPA)


Want to go to Mars?

The journey there is already happening. Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s top science students are monitoring and maintaining a key link in a long-term experiment to prepare for the first future human missions to the Red Planet.

HPA’s science students are in charge of the instrumentation for the HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) team experiment. All research data from the team, and all responses, will be sent via wireless links — telemetry — to support staff at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Cornell University.

To heighten the communication simulation between planets, the communications link has a built-in delay just like real communications would take between Mars and Earth. Even though communications travel at light speed, a one-way message can take 20 minutes or more.

NASA’s four-month HI-SEAS Big Island experiment is the first in a planned three-year series to study the challenges of Mars missions.

On April 16, 2013 six scientist-researchers entered a dome-shaped habitat at the 8,000-foot level of Mauna Loa. The researchers will spend 120 days in isolation, simulating living and working in a real Mars habitat. Their experiments will develop and practice mastery of several daily tasks essential to sustain human life in deep space.

The researchers’ primary task will be assessing and refining the best of various approaches to food preparation for both years-long space missions and permanent human outposts on Mars and the moon.

The six researchers visited HPA’s Energy Lab on April 12, 2013, to meet the students who will run the wireless links between the simulated Mars station and Earth.

During their HPA visit, the researchers listened intently as students described several of their other projects in the school’s self-directed science-research program.

Senior Duncan Michael wowed the NASA team with his student-built, inexpensive brain electrical-discharge scanner. Called an “Emotiv headset,” Michael recently flew a quad rotor over an audience at Macworld in San Francisco, using only his thoughts, while also talking about the device at the same time.

The Emotiv headset resembles a flexible, skeletal hand with electrode-sensor fingertip pads that grasp the exterior of a subject’s skull.

The instrument has already been used in experiments with elementary school students, student Tori Massara told the team, “to see how brains change as they learn over time.”

“This is unbelievable, extraordinary,” researcher Kate Greene said after hearing Michael’s and Massara’s presentations.

The Emotiv headset can distinguish between audio learners and visual learners. The inexpensive brain-monitoring instrument mimics the capabilities of more sensitive, and far more expensive, electro-encephalograph instruments used in hospitals to track, for example, seizures in patients with epilepsy.

The HPA instrument, Massara said, will be used to establish a baseline for a football player’s brain electrical activity before any injury, and then show differences that might occur when a player sustains a concussion.

NASA researcher Simon Engler, the team’s engineer, was impressed by Massara’s clear presentation. “I like the way you said, ‘when the player gets a concussion,’” Engler joked.

Engler has a Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics and mathematics, and is pursuing a Master of Science degree in robotics. He served 10 months in 2009 as a combat engineer with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

While there, he developed and built an operational mobile robot to safely investigate IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Engler is now working on Zoe, an astrobiological robot prototype that may be used on future Mars missions.

As an astronomer, Engler asked Massara about another possible observing proposal for the instrument she built to monitor radio signals from the giant planet Jupiter.

“You could do a sweep of the sky to pick up the structure of the galaxy,” Engler said.

“That is my next project,” Massara responded.

Another project is Luigi Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy’s inexpensive seismometer to detect the location and strength of earthquakes.

With the Big Island sitting atop one of the world’s most seismically active zones, Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy’s instrument uses tiny accelerometers to measure shifts in position along three axes: X, Y, and Z. Similar sensors in cell phones allow cell phone users to have their screens facing “up” no matter which way the telephone is turned.

Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy noted that one seismometer, a sophisticated broadband seismic station installed by NOAA beneath the school’s Taylor Commons dining hall, can detect an earthquake’s primary and secondary waves as well the ground waves generated by the movement of magma deep beneath the Big Island.

The students, in turn, were attentive to the projects the HI-SEAS researchers would be conducting. In addition to the food preparation experiments, the researchers also will conduct experiments in robotics, sleep, exercise, and on occasion suit up in simulated space suits to explore the environment.

The Mauna Loa site was chosen, in part, because of the reddish hue of the nearby lava flows, which are geologically similar to the surface of the moon or Mars. In traditional space missions, like that of the International Space Station, astronauts eat pre-prepared foods, not much different from the freeze-dried stuff campers use in the backcountry.

While the HI-SEAS team also will use pre-prepared food currently in use by astronauts, they also will prepare and eat meals prepared from “shelf-stable” basics, like soup stock and flour.

Spatzle in space? Why not? More familiar to most HPA students, though, might be a long-time Hawaii favorite.

Yes, we’re talking Spam. Not the useless, clog up your digital memory’s spam, and not the plate loads of the tasty, clog-your-arteries-when-eaten-to-excess kind of processed meat product that Hawaii residents love so much. But just enough Spam, slivers really, to spice up a dish like a steamed egg-cake with nori dish, made from dehydrated egg, flour, and fresh bean sprouts.

That’s the kind of meal the “habinauts” will practice growing, processing, and baking/cooking into meals fit for an alien gourmand.

All of the HI-SEAS researchers have diverse backgrounds in academics and research. Many of the questions asked by HPA’s elite science students focused on the spark that ignited their personal interest in applying for the HI-SEAS experiment—more than 700 applied for the six spots. In each case, a single event in childhood or the teen years blossomed into a consuming passion and a powerful need to excel.

The multidisciplinary backgrounds of the researchers also revealed the need to be able to perform multiple tasks in long-term, closed-ecosystem missions.

The overlapping of abilities was a necessary parameter in the selection process, team leader Dr. Angelo Vermuelen said. Vermuelen, a TED fellow, is a Ph.D. biologist, space researcher, filmmaker, visual artist, community organizer, and author.

“We were looking for people who would be compatible in long-term situations,” he said. “That was absolutely essential.”

Dr. Bill Wiecking, director of HPA’s Energy Lab and the advanced self-directed science research of students, led the tour and student presentations.

“Who knows?” Wiecking said. “Maybe an HPA grad will be on that first manned mission to Mars.”

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One Response to “HPA students assist NASA with experiment”

  1. Lord Haw-Haw. says:

    These Martian simulations remain uninspiring by way of opinion, the surface gravity of mars at 3.71 is about 40% that of Earth and some 95% of the Martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide and almost 100 times thinner than that here on Earth with Mars capable of having a temperature of -63C. No magnetic field to protect the would-be colonizers and approximately half the sunlight we receive here on Earth. Bone loss associated with weaker gravity the skeleton crew in the dome shaped habitat should have applied to work on manual lighthouses.


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