Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 1: Sun & Shade

Things are looking up, in many more ways than one. First off, our Zzyzx base camp has a wireless Internet connection, so I should be able to update daily, provided I actually have time, and don't keep coming back to camp after 10pm.

Yesterday's word was "Serendipity". I went with yesterday's thought and chose to bypass the most popular science themes which were the geology field trip, although I definitely want to do it on Thursday, the soil microbiology transsect, and of course, the rover and hot air balloon trips.

Instead, I went with the Soil Metereology team. They only had one person signed up, and they had no "Lettuce Bagger" -- If you're nice and leave me a comment, maybe I'll tell you what that means. ;)

Our task for the day was to set up a meterologic station to monitor weather conditions around a carefully selected area. The purpose is to see how temperature, humidity, wind speed, light exposure and the other ambients affect the soil. Since we want to be able to make a comparison to the dry, desertlike conditions on Mars, we had to find a site with soil most like what we expect to find there. Being in the desert makes our site selection a bit easier than elsewhere, but it was still difficult. Our selection was at the base of an alluvial fan, where a large quantity of wind-blown sand and dust had accumulated. even in these dry conditions, there were still quite a few creosote bushes, and dried grasses. We set up our monitoring station as far from the vegetation as we could, took a few non-sterile soil samples, and returned to our base camp. The research team, led by Dr. Kress and Leo Hernandez will return later in the week to take sterile soil samples and collect the data collection instrumentation.

For all you tech geeks, we set out about twenty sensors of the various types, all connected to loggers. All of the data loggers use either a serial or USB data connection to a computer. Once they are initialized, they will continue to take data, storing it internally, until they are collected, and their data downloaded. The initialization process involves attaching the devices to a computer, having the computer recognize the device, and then set the timers and internal clocks of the devices.

When our group gathered, Leo was diligently initializing the various loggers. I jokingly commented to one of my fellow teachers that whenever you are dealing with new hardware and a computer system, the 3x rule applies. You should figure that the process of getting the hardware up and running should take three times as long as your original estimate. So, when Leo told us it would take a half hour to 45 minutes to prep things, I expected to be in for a bit of a wait.

Leo did his best to prove me wrong, but 90 minutes later, the hardware wasn't as cooperative. One logger just didn't want to talk to his PC - apparently, it needed a special software package, and they had left the disks behind. The only software they had was a Mac version (- insert an editorial pause for those of you who can see the next bit coming -).

So there I was...a software engineer, with 12 years of experience with experimental hardware and Mac systems. I bet I could probably help.

"Hey guys, I have a Mac."

The walk back to my tent to get my laptop took fifteen minutes. The installation of the software took five, initializing that final sensor took another five. Hurray for Macs!

My day was only half over at this point. We had finished setting up the entire soil meterology monitoring station, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet!

It was at about this time that serendipity played a hand. Mike Spilde and Jud Wynne came back from a scouting mission of some potential lava caves. Jud is a part of the team at NASA who have just found several potential caves on Mars. His team is interested in characterizing how thermal and humidic differences can be used to detect the characteristics of caves on other planets. How much does the depth of a cave affect it's thermal signature at the surface? How does the temperature of the cave differ from the surface to its deepest point?

To gain an analog for Martian and other non-terrestrial caves, we want to explore caves in the driest areas of Earth. When Jud and Mike returned, they asked if anyone would be interested in accompanying them to explore some of the more "advanced" lava tubes in the area.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

After about an hour's drive, we arrived in the southern part of the preserve, at a cinder cone, where there were hundreds of lava tubes just waiting to be explored. Mike and Jud handed out all the equipment we needed, helmets, lights, gloves and knee pads. A short walk over the lava field brought us to a tube named "Russel Stewart", presumably after the person to map it. The entrance was a tight, sinuous descent through a jumble of the broken skylight. After we got through the broken rubble, the tube opened up into a large chamber. While Jud placed a sensor pack, Mike gave us an overview of the different mineral formation and biological growths.

Jud needed to place the third sensor "deep" within the cave, so deeper we went. This tube was an easy tube, with just a few places where we needed to get on our hands and knees to duck through tight spots. Jud placed the sensor pack, and we headed out to the next two tubes.

Upper and Lower Glove lava tubes were much more cramped. These two parts of the same tube had retained a large amount of their molten lava after it stopped flowing. When the lava cooled, there was much less space in the tube. After placing the surface and entrance sensors, Jud bravely led our group, deep into the bowels of the lava (well, at least a hundred feet into the bowels), where we placed the final sensors, and climbed back out.

Our impromptu expedition had run late, and dinner was already being served back at base, so we had to improvise. Jud and Mike led us to this little restraunt, right on the side of Route 66, Baghdad Cafe. Apparently it has a starring role in some movie. ;)

When we arrived, the doors were closed, lights out, and the chairs were up on the tables, but Jud, with his classic drawl, convinced his fellow southerner to open the doors for our group of starving researchers. We had an incredibly satisfying meal of American road cuisine - I had chicken fried steak and a couple of Millers - and some great conversation and stories from the owner.

Finally, we rolled back into Zzyzx around 11pm, strategically missing the organizational and administrative meetings.


Ann L said...

This is reading like some adventure story! We are enjoying your postd. Sounds great. I created a blog just to comment.

Kel said...

All right, FINE! What is a lettuce bagger? (How about...someone who clears the plant life out of the way? The person who packs the lunch? The person who keeps all the paper?)

Ann L said...

Lettuce Bagger? plantlife collector, gold digger?

Mike Lum said...

Kel was closest. Our caterer didn't put the lettuce on our sandwiches in the morning, because it would make them soggy. So, we have one person out of every group assigned as the lettuce handler, responsible for carrying the bag of lettuce for everyone's sandwiches.