Project SIMPLE

Sub-Ice Marine and PLanetary-analog Ecosytems (SIMPLE)

The SIMPLE project was anything but–it was a NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) project funded to conduct an in-depth study of the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Antarctica as a proxy for future exploration of Europa.  We used four vehicles funded by the project, and one built under PI Schmidt’s startup at Georgia Tech, to explore and characterize the ice shelf and complete the science.  SIMPLE is a collaboration of Georgia Tech, University of Illinois, Chicago, University of Texas, Stone Aerospace, Moss Landing Marine Laboratory and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The purpose of SIMPLE is to understand how the ice and ocean interact and support life on Earth and from this to better understand ice-ocean systems on other planets, namely Jupiter’s moon Europa.  We are testing technology that will be used both on future orbiting and hopefully landed spacecraft to characterize this enticing astrobiological target.

SIMPLE has three Antarctic field expeditions.  Season 1 in 2012 served as a test season for ice shelf operations, Season 2 in 2014 is a larger undertaking to explore above and beneath the shelf in preparation for season 3 in 2015 that will include the bulk of the science operations.  For more on our field activities, see our field blog at:

The vehicles involved in this endeavor are:

Submersible Capable of under-Ice Navigation and Imaging (SCINI)–SCINI is a 5ft long ROV developed at Moss Landing that is excellent for imaging the environment below the shelf.  She is designed for predominantly identification of mcarofaunal organisms that commonly exist on the sea floor and is rated to 300m.  SCINI has been outfitted with a CTD in order to get information about water properties as she swims underneath the ice.  In 2012, we successfully tested SCINI through the MIS, and in 2014, SCINI will perform detailed characterization of the sub-ice environment below the MIS at 6 sites accessed via hotwater drilling.

Icefin–Icefin is the new vehicle to the project, built at and by Georgia Tech for use with SIMPLE as well as future polar oceanographic work.  Icefin is a tethered AUV that combines relatively small size and man portability with a large suite of instrumentation that characterizes the water column, ice, and benthic environments.  Icefin is a modular vehicle, allowing it to be broken down and reconfigured easily, as well as moved to the field with ease.  Icefin carries forward and up/down imaging and sonars, a CTD, ADCP, DVL, IMU and bathymetry.  Icefin is rated to 1500m and will perform 3km long surveys below the MIS in the 2014-15 Antarctic field season.  For more on Icefin, see the Icefin page:

Artemis–Artemis is a large hybrid autonomous underwater vehicle built by Stone Aerospace that is the primary vehicle developed under SIMPLE.  Artemis is a long-range adapted version of the successful ENDURANCE and DEPTH-X vehicles.  Artemis carries remote and in situ instruments for characterizing the water, ice and any microbiology found within and below the ice: a CTD, ADCP, mapping and profiling sonars, imaging, HD video, a science tower with DOM, chlorophyll-a, turbidity, and pH sensors, as well as a water sampler and a protein fluorescence spectrometer to test for microbiological communities within and on the ice.  Artemis is 1000m depth rated, and will perform ~15 km long gridded surveys at the ice-ocean interface and along the benthic interface to fully characterize the environment below the MIS in the 2015-16 Antarctic field season.

Airborne Geophysical Platform–HiCARS-2 is the primary radar system on the UT Austin Airborne Geophysical Platform, that is developed for remote sensing of the cryosphere, and under SIMPLE, will serve as a proxy for a future spacecraft at Europa.  In addition to both HF and VHF ice penetrating radars, the platform also includes gravimetry, laser altimetry, magnetometry and imaging.  This platform is actively testing the radars being developed for the Europa Clipper mission that will hopefully be selected for flight in the near term.  The airborne project will remote sense to calibrate radar penetration and attenuation and to develop techniques for processing radar data over floating ice and water-rich targets. The ariborne flights will occur in the 2014 Antarctic field season.

SCINI-Deep–SCINI-Deep is being developed at UNL under the SIMPLE project for work alongside underwater drills and for science imaging below ice.  SCINI-Deep is a heritage design from the original SCINI vehicle and is depth rated to 1500m to assist with the deployment of drilling and other science equipment in deep water environments.  SCINI-Deep will be assisting the WISSARD project in the 2014-15 field season.

27 thoughts on “Project SIMPLE”

  1. Pingback: R & R | lemarctica
  2. To anyone one the project: What was your daily life like while you were working on this project? Did you have a routine, or was it something different every day?
    (Oh, also I’m a CAC student!)

  3. Another question for anyone who participated in multiple season on the SIMPLE project: Were there any major differences between the seasons you went to Antarctica? Or was it more like going to a summer camp, all the same comforts, everything as you left it? I just realized how funny it is to compare going to Antarctica verses going to summer camp!
    (CAC student)

  4. How are teams picked to go to Antarctica? I’m assuming the smaller the group the better, because it could be more expensive the more people go. So, is it like in the movies, where they have one expert for every field they would need? And what fields of expertise do you need for this kind of trip?
    (CAC student)

  5. To anyone during any part of the project: Was there anything unexpected that happened, during any part of the project? Anything that might have set back the whole thing by a week or so? How did you get past this? Was it a happy accident, or something you had to work through/around?
    (CAC student)

  6. I’m just typing these as I think of them. A serious question: How successful do you think your project has been? Could Icefin be the one to go to Europa when the technology is ready, or perhaps a decedent of Icefin- another robot built with new discoveries in mind that could be potentially better than Icefin in some ways?
    (CAC student)

  7. To anyone who has only participated in one season of the project: Given the opportunity, would you like to go again? Why or why not? What are some things you think you would do differently, given the chance to go again?
    (CAC student)

    1. Well this took a long time to answer, but to answer all your questions at once: you can only get to Antarctica as a contractor (which requires applying for a job) or if you have science funding. Season to season is normally quite similar, at least from our side. Rarely are there big changes we didn’t know were coming, i.e. not a lot of science-related surprises (other than weather or mid-season complications). Small groups are preferred because it’s very expensive to go, both financially and logistically. For us, we took eight people which was a lot, since we need help in deployments. Six were chosen to go to deep field – the current students, Britney, and our lead engineer. We like to have field spares of everything, including experts, and some people doubled up on that, so Josh Lutz was a software and mechanical guy for example, but we generally had at least two dedicated individuals for each subsystem. As a first timer, I would definitely go again, but not everyone likes it as much. It was just a lot of fun to be away from the world and to get to do engineering and science in such a place and meet all kinds of cool people. Really interesting place to be. The scenery was nice too. Next time I’ll pack less stuff, and a few new things – I made a list somewhere that I should find.

      Daily life was often very routine. On non-deployment days, after the egg line at 0725, we often spent most of the day in Crary fixing or testing or characterizing the vehicle, or looking at data, or doing Antarctic logistical things. Deployment days were longer, and more regimented: we were packing the Pisten Bully at 0800, departing for the field by 0900, and depending on the field site, we were ready to deploy by 1400 generally (takes a long time to get there and set everything up, since it was many of our’s first time down there). Six hours of deployment time generally was what we shot for; if we were really good that day, we were back in town for dinner before 1930. If not, it was a pizza night – 24 hour pizza is nice or that. Some days we got back really late, like after 2200.

      There were tons of unexpected things that happened. This is the nature of robotics and especially in Antarctica. Again, as it was many of our first time down there, we didn’t know really what it was going to be like, for us or for Icefin. Turns out it was a lot harsher for the robot than we anticipated, so we ran into some issues with that. Some took more time to fix than others – remaking a cable took an hour or two, re-positioning some of the high-powered electronics to better dissipate heat took longer. Not often are they happy accidents, but it does happen too.

      I saw probably a dozen penguins. Most are far off, you see them from MCM station while they’re on the sea ice. But sometimes, you’re in the field, and they swing by thinking you’re interesting. Then when they see you aren’t penguins, they generally wander away. Two Adelie’s got within a few meters of us the first day at the fishhut. That was pretty sweet.

      Thanks for all the questions!