Arctic Field Projects

Project Title: WATSON (Wireless Analysis Tool for Subsurface Observation of Northern-ice-sheets) project (Award# 14PSTAR1420027)

PI: Bhartia, Rohit (
Phone: (626) 390.9062 
Institute/Department: National Aeronautical and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology  
IPY Project?
Funding Agency: US\Federal\NASA
Program Manager: Dr. Mary Voytek (
Discipline(s): | Space Physics\Astrobiology | Space Physics\Planetary Science |

Project Web Site(s):

Science Summary:
The WATSON project (Wireline Analysis Tool for Subsurface Observation of Northern-ice-sheets) integrates recent technological drilling advancements and instrumentation to enable spatially resolved in-situ detection and characterization of organics, microbes, and potential biosignatures in the subsurface ice record. In-situ characterization of subsurface ice will lead to a better understanding of life in ice and constrain our understanding of how it can survive and be preserved in the icy regions of planetary bodies (e.g. Mars poles, Europa, Enceladus). Detection of organic, microbes, and potential biosignatures on solar system bodies and their spatial distribution are fundamental capabilities required to meet NASA’s strategic goals. This capability was highlighted by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team (SDT) report and subsequent Mars 2020 payload selection that incorporated instruments such as SHERLOC, PIXL, and SuperCam to use non-contact spectroscopic methods to assess the distribution of organics, minerals, key elements, and potential biosignatures. WATSON advances this capability to analyze layered subsurface ice deposits and is directly aligned with the recommendations of the 2013 Planetary Decadal Survey that stated, “the next step for in situ high-latitude ice studies is to explore the exposed [martian] polar layered deposits”. WATSON’s detection method is a (TRL 5) deep-UV native fluorescence instrument, a repackaged version of the recent SHERLOC instrument selected for Mars 2020 originally developed under NASA/ASTID and DoD programs. WATSON fits within the instrument bay of a wireline autonomous ice drilling system (TRL 5), developed initially by ASTID and recently refined and demonstrated under private funding. The WATSON project: •Enables a means to understand the patterns of organics, microbes, and potential biosignatures transferred through aeolian processes and preserved as layered deposits in ice sheets •Demonstrates that an analysis of a single geographical site provides this information over geological time scales and increases the probability of finding habitable environments and potential preserved biosignatures •Integrates high TRL hardware leveraging previous NASA/ASTID and NSF development funds •Reduces risk and demonstrates feasibility of instrument deployment to the layered deposits of the Mars polar ice caps The WATSON instrument will perform in-situ analysis of layered subsurface ice deposits in Greenland (GISP2). These have been selected as planetary analog sites because they are well-characterized, contain clear terrestrial paleoenvironmental records, are at high altitudes with high UV flux that could simulate higher radiation planetary surfaces, and have existing data on microbial density and diversity from current cores. By using these sites we will be able to map the in-situ derived distribution of microbial and organics, with climatological/environmental processes (volcanic, desertification, ocean chemistry, anthropogenic influences).

Logistics Summary:
Via this NASA PSTAR (Planetary Science and Technology Through Analog Research) program, researchers will develop an ice drill integrated with a deep-UV fluorescence analytical instrument combination. The ultimate goal of the project is to deploy the drill/instrument to Mars or the ice moons of the outer planets. The project will conduct tests of the drill at planetary analog sites in Greenland. In 2017, researchers deployed to Kangerlussuaq to perform drill testing and shallow coring near Point 660. In addition, science technicians at Summit located, measured, and stabilized the Ian Baker borehole to be later used by the WATSON project. In 2018, the project team did not deploy, but Summit science technicians further stabilized the borehole and used a camera system to inspect borehole conditions and measure borehole diameter over its depth. In 2019, ten researchers will deploy to Summit Station. Researcher travel is staggered, with population at Summit varying from 4-6 persons. The project team will establish a work site at the Ian Baker borehole, commuting to the site via snowmobile each day and sleeping at Summit each night. Researchers will use the existing borehole to access the firn-ice transition at 80 meters depth and will drill an additional 20 meters using the project experimental ice drill. Researchers will then lower their UV fluorescence instruments into the borehole to perform tests and scientific measurements. The project team has coordinated with the US Ice Drilling Program (IDP) to use a hand auger and Sidewinder drive/lifting system for additional shallower drilling work adjacent to the primary borehole. This is intended to allow further testing of the WATSON system, schedule permitting. No IDP staff will deploy for the project. In support of this project, two Summit science technicians will create a flagged navigation route to the site and will excavate a drill trench to facilitate early project progress. Then, accompanying the project team for their first two days at the drill site, the technicians will assist in setting up work tents and transporting equipment.

CPS will provide ANG coordination for passengers and cargo, lodging at the KISS facility in Kangerlussuaq, user days at Summit Station, science technician support during site setup, communications and safety gear, available equipment from Kanger and Summit CPS inventory, fuel for snowmobiles and generators, as well as planning, project management, and field equipment support. IDP will provide shallow drilling equipment. NSF will recoup these funds via an interagency transfer with NASA. The project team will make and pay for all other arrangements, including passenger travel and commercial freight.
SeasonField SiteDate InDate Out#People
2017Greenland - Kangerlussuaq03 / 27 / 2017 04 / 10 / 201711
2017Greenland - Point 66003 / 27 / 2017 04 / 10 / 201711
2018Greenland - Summit0
2019Greenland - Kangerlussuaq05 / 31 / 2019 07 / 13 / 20198
2019Greenland - Summit06 / 04 / 2019 07 / 11 / 20198

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