Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mea culpa Spock

Wandering musings from me while ensconced in my summer cubicle at NASA's Ames Research Center:
It's been over 48 hours since Spaceward Bound Arctic 2008 ended and... 

I love being in the field.  
I'm morose and languid as I persist in missing all my new friends.  
I marvel, still, that the beauty of the wild, interesting science work in it, and good souls, combine to forge strong friendships in microwave cooking-like time.  
I can't believe that the kid that ran outside and looked at our moon, then ran back inside and watched Apollo astronauts on the TV, the guy that slept in the Mojave sand to watch Columbia glide back home to Edwards, gets to spend time this summer at Ames.
I can't wait to get back into the field.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why compare the relic spring to Gypsum Springs? And how do you do it?

Margarita Marinova, Ph.D Candidate from CalTech, explains the whys and hows of comparing the relic spring site above White Glacier to the Gypsum Spring site downstream from Thompson Glacier.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Life in Gypsum Springs?

Is there life in Gypsum Springs? UNC biology undergrad, Zena Cardman, speaks about odd-looking colors downslope from one spring outlet at Gypsum Springs.

Last night on Axel Heiberg Island...thanks.

Thanks to Dr. Wayne Pollard, our host from McGill University, to Marie-Claude Williamson of the Canadian Space Agency, our Canadian and Inuit teaching colleagues, Sean, Genevieve, Naomi, and Elijah. To Tammy, teacher from Lake Placid N.Y., to Margarita and Zena, to Alberto, and finally to Chris, whom we all owe our deepest gratitude.

Hunting for relic spring to compare to Gypsum Springs

Chris McKay of NASA-ARC looks toward relic spring near White Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada. The relic spring is to be compared for similarity to the Gypsum Springs site.

The team hiked from M.A.R.S.Upper Base Camp to the terminal area of Thompson Glacier, then alongside a lateral moraine of White Glacier, which intersects Thompson Glacier. Heading to the relic spring site at N 79 degrees, 26.626 minutes, W 90 degrees, 42.129 minutes, involved a few rope pitches before the final jaunt to the relic site. This video clip shows Chris making the final rope ascent above White Glacier. In addition to being a top-notch NASA scientist, and a kind, giving human being, Chris is, apparently, quite the cool customer, as evidenced by the sounds he makes whilest climbing.

Caltech Ph.D candidate & UNC biology undergrad talk about studying Gypsum Springs

Margarita Marinova, Ph.D candidate from CalTech, and Zena Cardman, biology and poetry undergraduate from the University of North Carolina, speak to you from Gypsum Springs on an extremely windy day. The camera operator erred in choosing light exposure over protecting the microphone from the wind. His apologies to you. Still, this video gives a good feel for the springs' site, what it's like there, and why we study it.

How can springs flow year-round in the Arctic and why do springs just meters away from each other have different temperatures?

A snippet of a conversation on Saturday, July 26, 2008, between Dr. Wayne Pollard of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and Dr. Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center near Mountain View, California, USA discussing Gypsum Springs' different surface water temperatures. This was recorded minutes after the team arrived on the island.

A clue about Gypsum Springs, springs that flow year-round in the frigid Arctic

Gypsum Springs flow year-round, even though the average annual temperature there is around -15 degrees Celsius. That's puzzling. It turns out the chemicals in the water, specifically salts, help keep the water in a liquid state. Okay, but why then, when you measure a spring outlet's temperature, can you get different temperatures that are just a few meters apart, a stone's throw? And where does this water come from? What does it flow through? What happens on its voyage to the surface? Chris McKay, gives a clue in this video to some of the latter questions. Please excuse the poor audio quality the first 10 seconds.

Final Science Log Entry

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Today we made the 7 km hike to the lower camp with the Max 5R rover batteries and ancillary equipment. The rover is already at the lower camp. We spent most of the afternoon testing setting up the rover operations and testing the rover in the local environments. Everyone was able to easily use the rover due to the well designed and intuitive control system. The rover operated well over the rocky terrain. The main environmental challenge was the dust.

Thursday 31 July 2008

We hiked up again to the relic springs site, this time taking the valley route. No difficulties were encountered on this route. The teachers from the lower camp joined us by helicopter. We conducted extensive sampling at the site and surveying from the hill top to the edge of the White Glacier.

In the afternoon we dug another pit to the level of ice cemented groud (72 cm again) in and area of well developed patterned ground.

In the evening we decided to do a midnight hike to and on the terminus of the White Glacier and along the front of the Thompson Glacier. The midnight sun provided more than enough light despite the heavy clouds.

We concluded our hike at 2 AM and waited for the 3:30 AM total solar eclipse. Unfortunately the solid cloud cover did not let up and slight rain fell.

Friday 1 August 2008

Today was our first day with rain. We worked on documenting and packing our samples.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

5 AM we departed for the hike to the lower camp to catch the twin otter flight to Resolute and from there on to Ottawa.

M.A.R.S. landing, Axel Heiberg Island, High Arctic, Nunavut Territory, Canada

The last of the NASA/CSA/McGill University Spaceward Bound Arctic 2008 expedition team arrived home early Monday morning in San Francisco, after hiking 12 km at dawn Saturday from Upper Base Camp to Lower Base Camp and flying the first of seven flight segments over the weekend.

Here is the extended version (approximately 11 minutes) of our landing at the M.A.R.S. base back at the beginning of the research trip. We fly in over Expedition Fjord, the outflow from Thompson Glacier, then fly a reconnaissance over the Upper Base Camp landing field to check landing conditions, followed by the landing. The camera zooms in, on the shoreline of the Thompson's outflow, on Gypsum Springs, where much of our work centered.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Weds., July 30: Lower Base Camp Rover test a success!

Stay tuned for LOTS of video on a successful rover test by American, Canadian and Inuit teachers.  Additionally we have much video from Gypsum Springs, a permafrost sampling site, and from the air that shows great views of Axel Heiberg Island and the two base camps.   

Science Activity Update: July 29-31

Tuesday 29 July 2008
Today we meet with the group from the lower camp to do a seismic study of the Gypsum Springs area. A string of geophones were placed on the ground and then a seismic disturbance was generated by hitting a target with a sledge hammer. The geophones pick up the sound wave as it bounces around in the ground. From this we hope to be able to learn something about the subsurface structure of the springs.

We also dug a soil pit to the ice-cemented layer to sample bacteria living there.  We will compare them with bacteria living in this zone in Antarctica.  We chose a site at N79.40451 W90.78466 elevation 116 m. The site is along the ATV path connecting the upper and lower camps. Depth to permafrost was 72 cm.

Planning ahead

Wednesday 30 July 2008
In the morning we plan to do to the lower camp and test the Max 5R rover. If possible we will also hike to the Colour Peak Springs.

Thursday 31 July 2008
Going to another relic springs site, revisiting the relic spring site we visited on Sunday.

Wednesday, July 30 rover test, Lower Base Camp

Our NASA team hiked down to Lower Base Camp this morning to uncrate, and test, our Carnegie Mellon University rover.  Teachers are driving it "blind" as we speak, that is, they can't see the rover.  They drive it by watching a laptop wirelessly connected to the rover's dual lens camera.  It makes the rover look like Wall-E.  Teachers did troubleshooting and got the rover up and running.  Future steps for the Spaceward Bound rovers include having teachers drive the rovers ahead of them, out of their sight, into areas to explore.  For example, an ice cave may be too dangerous for a human to enter.  The rover can enter instead  

Tuesday, July 29: Seismic mapping at Gypsum Springs

Sean, a high school teacher from Sacred Heart School in Stittsville, Canada, calibrates a seismometer yesterday, as the CSA crew collects initial seismic data in a quest to learn what geology underlies Gypsum Springs' outlets.  We hope this will help us understand why different spring outlets have widely differing water temperatures even though there are only a few feet away from each other.

Monday, July 28 rendezvous with Canadian Space Agency Team at Gypsum Springs

The NASA portion of the Spaceward Bound Arctic 2008 team hiked from Upper Base Camp
to Gypsum Springs where we met our Canadian Space Agency (CSA) colleagues and received briefings on the microbiology, mineralogy and underlying geology of the springs area.  These springs are of great interest to Chris McKay because different spring outlets, just a few meters apart (a meter is about equal to 3 feet), have temperature differences of up to 5 or 6 degrees C.  Why should springs so close together have such drastic temperature differences?  Of great interest is what the rocks underneath the springs are like.  So, after recording the temperatures of the various spring outlets, 

and mapping their latitudes and longitudes with GPS, we are excited to find out our CSA friends will deploy a seismometer in an attempt to "see" below the ground.  They will analyze this data when we all return from the Arctic, and help Chris try to determine if different below-ground structures help direct the springs in such a way as to explain why the water temperatures are so very different even though the springs water outlets are so very close together.  It's as if we'll have x-ray vision to see what is beneath the springs!

Upper Base Camp cooking hut

Naomi and Elijah are extremely kind folks, and teachers, from Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada. They are valuable members of the Spaceward Bound team.  They teach us much about their Inuit heritage, and brew us treats like heather tea prepared over an open fire of heather!  Here they are, pictured outside our cooking hut at the Upper Base Camp.  All our teachers are forming the professional relationships, and friendships, that Spaceward Bound so uniquely enables.  It improves our teaching, helps students, and gives all of us educators the enhanced ability to develop curriculum to share in the coming school year with teachers and students on the Web via Spaceward Bound 2.0, the newest iteration of Spaceward Bound that seeks to give the Spaceward Bound experience to thousands of teachers and students.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Climb to relic spring site, Sunday, July 27

After ascending alongside the flank of Thompson Glacier, White Glacier soon loomed ahead and to the left.  White Glacier's massive ice collides with the side of Thompson Glacier.  Near here, we deployed a rope and scrambled several hundred feet up to an adjoining ridgetop to continue our way to the spring site.

Science activity summary for Spaceward Bound 2008 Arctic

Saturday 26 July 2008
We left Resolute Bay in a Twin Otter for the 2 hour flight to the McGill Arctic Reseach Statioin on Axel Heiberg Island. Our Station is on the shore of Colour Lake at N79.41550 W90.75120 with an elevation of 180m.

We ate lunch and had our first planning meeting with Wayne Pollard of McGill University. After lunch we hiked down to the active springs at the base of Gypsum Hill. We took a water sample from one of the most studied of the spring sites here:
Little Black Pond. Located at N79.40409 W90.73309 elevation 19m. See photo. Note the gas bubbles coming up in the water.

Sunday 27 July 2008
We hiked along the White Glacier. Our destination was a site that may be a dry relic of a former spring. We found the site at N79.44386 W90.70168 elevation 343m. Samples collected tested positive for carbonate here at the Station.

Monday 28 July 2008
Today we hiked to the active springs. The group from the lower camp (about 7 km away) came to the springs and we worked there together this morning. We measured temperature. As previous data indicated springs located without 10 m of each other have temperatures that differ by 5ÂșC. Tomorrow the lower camp team will bring their shallow seismic equipment and we will try to investigate the subsurface structure of the springs to understand how such close-by springs can have different temperatures.

Tuesday 29 July 2008
Our plan is to go back to the active springs at the base of Gypsum Hill and do the seismic work.

Sunday, July 26: First full day in the field

The Spaceward Bound Arctic 2008 expedition's science goals include looking at a potential relic spring, where spring water may have existed in a previous geological era.  Since we will study the mineralogy and microbiology of a current spring, Gypsum Springs, and given the likelihood we won't find active springs on Mars, studying the mineralogy and microbiology of the site of a long-ago spring will give human researchers an idea, or a template, for searching for relic springs on Mars.  What do you think of this?

We plugged GPS coordinates for the potential spring site, and began a day-long hike out and back to the target area. This involved an initial descent towards the terminus, or end of, Thompson Glacier.  The scenery reminded the team why field science is so thrilling.  Muddy water cascaded and roared its way out of the leading edge of the glacier above thick, tall, dark layers of terminal moraine detritus.  

Travel Day 3: The expedition team arrives at M.A.R.S., Sat., July 26!

Our Twin Otter taxied to the threshold of the Resolute Bay runway for takeoff to M.A.R.S. station. On our third full day of travel, we were ready to arrive.  We'd boarded on a cool, damp, drizzly morning.  The eerily quiet landscape was disrupted by the Twin Otter's dual turboprops firing up.  The team giddily gazed at each other as the plane turned into the wind on the runway, only to be told by our co-pilot that weather was preventing our takeoff.  This happens often in the Arctic.  It was not what we wanted to hear.  We were more than ready to be out of airplanes for a bit, but we understood and accepted why we had to wait a little longer.  

Thankfully, we waited for only a quarter of an hour, then roared into the sky on the last leg.  And what a leg it was!  Clouds, icebergs, snow, enthralling, vast expanses of glacier-carved terrain.  Then, over a ridge and across Expedition Fjord, we spotted the lower base camp on Axel Heiberg Island in Nunuvut Territory, Canada!  After a reconnaissance pass to check the dirt runway's condition, and wind direction, we touched down on our home for the next few days.  We soon met Wayne Pollard, a professor at McGill University, and a kind and giving host to researchers on the island.  He helped us unload our gear, set us up in our camp, and then grilled us salmon steaks.  How fortunate are we? 

Travel Day 2: Iqaluit to Resolute Bay

We left our FirstAir 727 at Iqaluit Airport, and after meeting Matt from CSA, transferred to a twin-engine turboprop for the next-to-last leg of the voyage to the research station.  This leg took us to Resolute Bay, with a refueling stop in Hall Beach where we saw our first sea ice from terra firma.  We landed in an overcast, damp and drizzly Resolute Bay.  The nice facility there is run by the Polar Continental Shelf Project, and is a major jump-off point for high arctic research expeditions in this part of the Arctic. 

Here we located our science gear that had been flown up in late June from NASA Ames Research Center aboard an Air National Guard C-130 Hercules.  We accessed e-mail, had a team meeting on mission science goals, and crawled in our sleeping bags in a group tent, excited for the chance to fly out the next morning, weather permitting, for the final leg of our trip:  a Twin Otter flight to M.A.R.S. on Axel Heiberg Island.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Travel Day 2: Moon and Mars greenhouse in the Arctic?

Yes, it's true.  At Iqaluit Airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Resolute Bay, the Spaceward Bound Arctic group met Matt Bamsey, a post-doc from the Canadian Space Agency.  Matt's work involves researching how to develop autonomous greenhouses for use on the Moon and Mars.  The reasoning is that on those missions we don't want astronauts spending a large percentage of their time growing food necessary for their survival during long-duration expeditions.  So, if greenhouses can be developed that run automatically, and can handle the unique light and dark environs of both the Moon and Mars, astronauts have more time to devote to the science goals of the mission.  Search terms such as "Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse Haughton Mars Project Devon Island" for more information.

Why the Arctic?  Moon: extreme environment.  Mars:  extreme environment.  Arctic:  You guessed it.  Extreme environment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spaceward Bound's Web Guru

Here's Linda Conrad, of NASA Ames Research Center.  She is THE guru when it comes to Spaceward Bound web postings.  And she laughs a lot, so she is a valuable part of the expedition team.  She will help with questions and comments we receive while in the Arctic.

Mars Science Laboratory & Wind Tunnel

Phoenix, the rover currently at the north pole of Mars, and Spirit and Opportunity, the two Energizer Bunnies of Mars' rovers, all carry science packages weighing, I believe, less than 20 pounds each.  Flying to Mars soon will be the Mars Science Laboratory.  Carrying about 143 pounds of science equipment, this rover will be the size of a small car!  How do you gently place this payload on the martian surface?  Well, boys and girls, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics saavy, of course.  That and all the amazing folks at NASA and supporting contractors.  

For an exciting .mov animation of its landing, go to

Last week, I was fortunate to tour the world's largest wind tunnel where tests were being conducted the main chute for the Science Laboratory.  It's sixty feet in diameter when fully deployed, leaving ten feet of clearance on each side of this 80' x 100' wind tunnel.  Look for the people walking in front of the wind tunnel intake in the photo outside the tunnel.  Gives one a good perspective for the actual immensity of the tunnel.

Rover Driver's Ed. 101

One of the six major questions of the Arctic 2008 expedition is:
How can a teleoperated rover be used to assist human explorers in the Arctic?

Yesterday, I journeyed to the Carnegie Mellon University Innovations Lab to begin to learn how to drive a rover.  After driving a rover I find it's similar to driving a R/C (radio-controlled) car, or operating a video game controller.  An aside:  I can hear my video-game-loving students already concocting stories to their parents explaining why they can't do their homework, but must get on the Wii.  They have to refine their fine-motor teleoperational device abilities so as to ensure a career in the sciences...(weary sigh from teacher).

Above you can see a rover similar to the type we'll drive in the high Arctic.  Also, below, in the video, you'll meet my driving instructor, Andrew, and catch a glimpse of the lab staff.  Incidentally, this biologist notes they seem to fuel their metabolic rate primarily through candy bars and highly-caffeinated soft drinks.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Carnegie Mellon University rover

Here's a view of a rover being debugged and prepped for Spaceward Bound usage by the Carnegie Mellon University group pictured below. 

One week to Axel

Geoff Hammond and Robert Palassou were at
NASA's Ames Research Center the week of July 7
meeting with Chris McKay, principal investigator of the Spaceward Bound team, observing construction of a rover for use in the Arctic by a group from Carnegie Mellon University, attending astrobiology lectures, and researching methods to best share the Spaceward Bound experience with teachers and students from all over the world.  They will develop educational activities from Axel and share them virtually via the open-source websites.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Past Spaceward Bound Sites

Here's some video of the cushy base camp we had at Spaceward Bound Mojave 2007.  This facility is run by the California State University system for the benefit of researchers working in the Mojave Desert.

The temperature and precipitation extremes of this locale readily suit the Spaceward Bound
goal of searching for life in extreme environments.  

Two weeks to Axel

McGill Arctic Research Station
Take scientists searching for life in Earth's most extreme environments as analogs for future exploration of the Moon and Mars.  Pair them with teachers in the field. Have teachers design authentic scientific investigations for students based on their work with the scientists, and, voila, you have NASA's Spaceward Bound program.  Fortunate teachers have worked alongside NASA scientists in the Atacama Desert in Chile,  the Mojave Desert in southern California, the high plains of North Dakota, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California, and now, to McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) in the Canadian High Arctic.

Geoff Hammond and Robert Palassou, teachers from southern and northern California, respectively, are preparing for the Axel mission by familiarizing themselves with mission objectives, equipment to be used, and working on Spaceward Bound 2.0, the tech component of Spaceward Bound intended to make the Spaceward Bound experience accessible to students and teachers everywhere.