DRATS

Just when I was beginning to wonder why I’d renewed the domain for this blog…

T-minus 10 days until I head out to NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS).  I’ll be helping with a 14-day mission on the Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, testing the Lunar Electric Rover, which looks like this:

https://i0.wp.com/www.nasa.gov/images/content/295226main_jsc2008e139397_low.jpg

Check out the website for the 2009 Desert RATS field season.  You’ll find links to the D-RATS Youtube channel, Twitter page, blog, and Flickr page.

Happy Moonday

I’ve just returned from Pavilion Lake (you can read updates from the entire research team here), coming full-circle after an adventure-filled year. Soon I’ll share with you more about my most recent time at Pavilion Lake, but first:

Today marks 40 years since the Apollo 11 lunar landing and mankind’s first footsteps outside of Earth.

Compared to many other creatures on Earth, we are fairly limited in our natural range of habitat. We can’t fly, we can’t breathe underwater, we don’t do so well in extreme temperatures. We are exceptional, though, in that we create technologies which allow us to explore elements beyond the land—technologies like rockets and boats.

In November, I sailed on a tall ship named after Robert C. Seamans (who, incidentally, was an important figure at NASA in the 1960s, and sat behind President Kennedy at his famous Rice University speech).  What I grew to love about sailing on board the SSV Seamans was becoming a part of this technology that harnesses natural forces. We set the sails. We engage the engine. I have been asked a few times why people still bother with tall ships when technology has progressed so far beyond sails. We sail for the challenge, for the thrill, the accomplishment, or maybe simply because we want to go somewhere.

In any case, the ocean is there and we have something that floats. We went to the Moon for similar reasons in the 1960s. We have yet to go back.  Some say we lack the technology.  We lack the motivation.  We haven’t been able to muster that spirit again.   Should you meet the people with whom I’ve worked during the last year, I think you will see that our spirit for challenge, adventure, and intellectual gain still exists.

At night on the SSV Seamans, I couldn’t help but look up at the stars. I delighted, too, in celestial navigation, an art which, these days, is more easily done with GPS units. That we can derive a point on the surface of our planet from a few pinpricks in the sky is impressive, I thought. But that we understand what those pinpricks are and where we are in relation to them is profound.

Few things in sailing are as important as knowing where you came from, where you are, and where you are going—and this of course presents an easy metaphor for any human endeavor. There is nothing more thrilling than knowing where you want to wind up, and pointing your bow into the dark sky separating you from that goal.

Jumping Ship

swimcall-005-2

With so much left to say about my time at sea, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been home for a month already, and that I’m leaving so soon for Antarctica.  I fly out on December 27th, and will arrive 26 hours later in Punta Arenas, Chile.  From there, it’s another four or five days by ship across the Drake Passage before I reach the Antarctic.

This time last year I was just beginning the first of my adventures, and I’m about to embark on my last–for a little while, anyway.  Thank you to all those who have shared these experiences with me.  Stay tuned for stories from the deep, deep, deep south…

Weightless

I am officially at Woods Hole now, which I guess means it’s time to bid farewell to the Arctic as far as blog posts go.

We left Axel Heiberg on one of the windiest days I’ve ever seen.  Upper Camp, where we had been staying further north on the island, was experiencing some nasty cloudy weather, so we took a gamble and hiked a few miles south, in the hopes that the plane would have a better chance of landing there.  The clouds may have actually been better, given the incredible gusts ripping through Lower Camp, and unpredictably changing directions every few minutes.  If I unzipped my jacket and held its edges out like sails, the wind literally lifted me off my feet.

I’d secretly been hoping it wouldn’t be able to land, but in some crazy feat of expert piloting, the twin-otter managed to touch down at Lower Camp, after circling a few times to gauge the wind.

We were splashed with jet fuel as the pilots tried to fill up the twin-otter’s tank in the blustering wind.  In between gusts, I overheard the pilot say, “Young pilots think they’re going to live forever.  Me?  I’ve already lived forever.”

I wasn’t sure what exactly that implied for the flight ahead of us, but I guessed correctly that it was going to be a bumpy ride.  As we strapped down our cargo and began to buckle ourselves in, the co-pilot turned around and warned us:

Make sure you buckle those tight.  I mean … TIGHT.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long after the twin-otter took off from the tundra that we hit some serious turbulence.  We were actually weightless at one point, with all our jackets, cameras, and cargo floating right at eye-level.  I was videotaping the view out the window when it happened.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think fast enough to catch the floating stuff on camera, but it’s a fun video to watch nonetheless:

I get so wistful watching that landscape disappear below the plane.  I can’t wait to go back.  I’m addicted to the Arctic.

cold but wet

One of the most interesting features on Axel Heiberg is the existence of perennial springs. They come in a variety of forms. Some look like little streams flowing down the side of the hill, others look like ponds bubbling up like tiny jacuzzis, still others look like seeps coming up from below. Some of them leave deposits that form shapes like pipes over the springs.

But don’t let the bubbling jacuzzi effect fool you–these springs are not hot. Not even close. Intriguingly, the temperatures vary from spring to spring, despite their proximity to one another. Most are around 4 degrees Celsius. The really neat thing is that these springs flow year round, despite a mean annual temperature of minus 15 degrees. And they come up at a constant temperature and flow rate, despite air temperatures which, over the seasons, change drastically from above freezing to 40 below.

The springs also reek of that delicious rotten egg smell, like a giant fart. Thank you, sulfur.

The grayish stuff you see in the pictures above is a film of sulfur-reducing bacteria. The white stuff is gypsum, a type of salt.

Happy Lunarversary

July 20, 2008: today marks 39 years since we first landed on the moon. We have not been back since 1972, and will not go again until at least 2018.

As a high school senior in 2006, I remember watching Mireya Mayor’s speech at the Intel ISEF. Mayor is an ex-Miami Dolphins cheerleader, now a primatologist and National Geographic correspondent. Her speech was geared towards young scientists, telling them that if you want to go somewhere, it takes a little persistence but you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Listening to her tales of discovery in the jungles of Madagascar was perhaps the first time I felt compelled to someday head into the wilderness, to go places where not many others can go. Since then, I’ve found the world of astrobiology. I’ve become obsessed with studying life where we once thought there could be none. I want to go to the ends of the Earth. These are my frontiers.

We as humans are still young scientists, but we are good at going places where not many others can go. We have talked about new frontiers in space, but have yet to get there.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein said that. Good news: it’s true. There’s a big universe out there, humans, so dream big. But imagination won’t always get us where we want to go without the guts and global support to act on it. Let’s go somewhere.