Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Final Questions

Well, our "final" assignment has been posted for a couple of months, and our final responses are due by Saturday. So, in classical college student form, I have waited until the last minute!

As much as I'd like to make this a narrative summary, the questions are diverse enough that covering them all in a narrative form would seem forced. Plus, answering them in the usual essay-question form is easier, and I'm lazy that way! ;)

We have to answer this series of ten questions:

1. How will you translate your experiences in the Mojave to your students?

Obviously, I don't have students, yet...I'm still a student myself. However, my target teaching audience will be at a level where NASA really hasn't been concentrating much. Pretty much all of the educational outreach programs are targeted at the K-12 levels. My audience will probably be at least the junior or community college level, and hopefully at the undergraduate or graduate level.

At the 13+ educational level, the challenges become less of getting your students to "buy into the dream" and more of keeping them focused on a career where they will be truly at the forefront of their field. When they start looking at US Government general pay scales, the incentive to work for NASA evaporates pretty quickly.

Realistically, the salary factor (or lack thereof) comes into play for pretty much any pure science or research field. The challenge of a teacher at the college level is in guiding their students into fields where they will be happiest. The almighty Dollar goes a long way toward satisfaction it that respect, but leads to a lot of people questioning their career choice ten or so years down the road (ahem...).

When we start putting people in Lunar and Martian research colonies, we're going to want our best and brightest. The additional incentive of simply making students aware of the incredible opportunities, as well as the pure diversity and variety of the experiences available to a pure research scientist, just might be enough to swing some of those brilliant lights NASA's way.

"Yeah, you're only making $90k with a PhD and 5 years of experience, but're working on MARS!" ;)

2. Describe your personal changes in your outlook on science, teaching, and science research?

Realistically, my outlook on any of the three didn't change much. I entered the Spaceward Bound expedition with a very good idea of what to expect, and wasn't disappointed.

If anything, I was able to experience a much wider variety of sciences than I anticipated. There was very little pure theoretical- and astro-physics (my personal field) research, and much more chemestry, biology and geology. I know that if I am going to pursue a career in astrobiology, I will need to be well versed in more than just pure physics. If I found out that I wasn't comfortable with the extended fields of study, then perhaps I would need to re-assess my current scholastic goals. Luckily, I greatly enjoyed every one of the research projects I participated in, boding well for my future pursuits.

3. What was most effective about how the Expedition went?

There were a couple of aspects which really stood out as being well run, or as having the most potential. First, the general structure of the program, the scheduling, facilities and logistics were exceptional. We (the "teachers") had every opportunity to get up to our necks in field research during the day, and have the time to discuss what we did with our groups after dinner. Yes, we didn't get much sleep, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice!

My small group, led by Geoff Hammond, was a critical part of the program. Having the previous years' teachers as our experienced group leaders, kept us focused on the real reason we were in the Mojave, to relay our experiences on to our students. With all the work we were doing during the day, it would have been easy to become too immersed in the science and lose focus. Geoff set the example, telling us about how he was able to translate his experiences in the Atacama into lessons for his students, and helping us to find ways to pass on our Mojave experiences to our own students.

Finally, the science was outstanding. If the individual showed interest, the researchers and scientists didn't pull any punches when we joined their groups for the day. We had the option to go out and do real research, not pre-made "toy" projects, and get real results. If we showed interest, and the slightest bit of competence, the research leads treated us as intellectual peers, and gave us the opportunity to experience field work as it was meant to be.

4. What could be done differently with Spaceward Bound? What other experiences could be offered?

MORE science less "fluff"!

The highlight of the program is, after all, the scientific experience. The teachers being brought in all have college degrees, most with a minimum of science curriculum, and should be treated as full-fledged research assistants. Put us/them to work! It doesn't even have to be all field work, either. Data analysis, lab work, even some print research, finding similar published works, are all parts of the scientific process, and should be part of Spaceward Bound.

I felt that much of the "fluff" such as the basic biology, chemistry and geology should have been moved to the webcasts, or maybe passed on by bringing the teachers in for a couple of days of "prep" work at Ames before we headed out to the site.

Once we got on site, we should have been able to jump right into the work being done by the scientists there.

Sure, the tours and "fun" activities were entertaining, but if those types of activities are going to be included, they should also have a strong science element as well. The baloon rides were great (I would guess -- I never went), but how about letting the teachers get in on the data analysis -after- the baloon lands. Did anyone actually see the IR pictures that were taken?

The rover was a fun toy, but how will mechanical and communication breakdowns, like the ones we had in the Mojave be handled on Mars? What about the off-the shelf components we were using? How will they be modified for extra-terrestrial use? etc...

5. Were the pre-expedition broadcasts helpful?  Suggestions for improvements?

Sort of. The first couple were very informative. They had the solid science I was referring to above. Although, I would have liked to have seen more reading assignments, possibly even some more of the published papers. The homework was lightweight, and didn't really force us to really learn about the topics. Even if we opted to go into depth on the chosen material, particularly the "science themes" homework, the connection was never made between the research we did for the broadcasts, and the work that was planned for the field.

I also have a technical complaint. The resolution of the broadcast was low enough that reading the slides was impossible. Sure, I ended up downloading the Powerpoint presentations and following along that way, but it was inconvenient.

There were also frequent sound issues, drop outs, extraneous noises, and occasional cross-talk with busy signals and phone lines.

Similarly, I would have liked to have seen the chat room be a real chat room. I would have liked to have seen my fellow participants there, and maybe had some discussions between us, instead of having it set up as an e-mail service to the moderator.

6. What did you get out of the personal interaction with scientists and other teachers?  How will it affect your teaching?

Ok, I'll admit it. I'm a science geek. I actually found listening to the late-night discussion between Drs McKay, Nienow and Boston about the potential of using mathematical simulations to model the geometric formation of plant growths to be one of the highlights of my trip. It was complex math combined with computer modeling combined with biology -- HELLO!? -- How cool is that?

Yeah, yeah...I know. It takes a certain mindset to embrace your inner geek. The scientists there had it down. The teachers had a different agenda. They were there for their students. While many of them shared the enthusiasm for the science, their first priority was to get this cutting-edge science back to their students.

I can't recall how many times I heard one of the teachers say "My students would love this!" or "How can I do this experiment with my kids back home?"

7. How can NASA support the next group of teachers and the Spaceward Bound program?

I think I covered the major part of my suggestions for the science part of the program in my answers to #s 3 and 4 above.

As for the logistic support, we had it easy...Catered meals, hot showers, indoor accomodations, there wasn't much more we could ask for. I drove down from San Jose, so my transportation needs were minimal. However, it seemed that the airport transfer process was reasonably well organized.

8.  Estimate the number of people who watched the webcast? (school, family, etc.) Provide a breakdown of who watched?

I have no idea. I didn't expect to be a part of the broadcast, as I don't have any students, so outside of a pointer to the Spaceward Bound! page, i didn't really spread the word.

9. If you are a part of an NES school or NEAT program, how did this affiliation affect your experience on the expedition?


10. What do you see Spaceward Bound evolving into in the next 5 years?  What would it look like?

I have no idea...seriously. So much depends on funding.

Spaceward Bound seems like a very low budget program, which is both good and bad. Good in that measuring it by the impact per dollar spent, probably makes it one of the most effective programs in NASA's budget. Bad, in that with such a small budget, the potential for a measurable impact is small. While 40 teachers seemed like a lot when were were down in the Mojave, out of the tens of thousands in the US, it's such a small number.

The evolution of the program should be driven by the needs of the scientists. In order for the research programs to remain relevant, and the teachers to bring back real experiences, the expedition needs to ldetermine the best locations, facilities and timeframes to support the scientific study, and only once a research skeleton is arranged, should the educational part of the program be fleshed out.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Day 5: The Voyage Home

Friday was the day they kicked us out of Zzyzx. The staff has done a incredible job in supplying us with a great environment for our program. The food was fantastic, and who has ever heard of clean showers and flush toilets on a field expedition? Thanks for going that extra distance to make space for all of us in your overcrowded facilities!

My original travel plans had me tentatively making the two hour drive to Las Vegas, spending the night on The Strip and making a side trip to the Hoover Dam and/or Zion National Park on Saturday. Unfortunately, I just have too much schoolwork due next week. An Optics midterm, plus my Astrobiology presentation on Terrestrial Planet Formation, to name two. Add in the LA traffic heading to Vegas for the weekend, and I opted out.

Once again, serendipity played a hand.

The rest of the San Jose Astrobio "crew" was heading to Death Valley, and if I could give Melissa a ride home so she could work on Saturday, Ben and Peng could do the reverse of my "Day -1", and hit Mono Lake as they drove home through Tahoe. Dr. Kress was also meeting her boyfriend there so they could head down to LA for the weekend.

Since I have never been to Death Valley, I thought it would be a great little bonus stop. Sure, it was a three-hour side trip and a little tourist-y, but hey, after a week in the desert, we were entitled to a bit of luxury, right? ;)

The side trip was worth it. The weather hadn't gotten outrageously hot yet, and the scenery was amazing. We stopped in Badwater Basin (where I happily paid the use fees!) and had lunch in Stovepipe Wells, with a side trip up Artisan Canyon.

Melissa had to be back early, so we left the rest of "The Crew" as they headed off to Mosaic Canyon for a quick hike, and finished our drive to San Jose.

I'm finally home, and it's Sunday, with my car still half filled with gear. I have lots of stuff to do, and am hating the idea of going back to "The Grind", but such is life. We have one more "Homework" assignment for Spaceward Bound!, which I'll post here once I get their final questions, and I'll also post an epilogue with my thoughts before signing off.

(The San Jose "Crew" (Left to Right), Me, Dr. Monika Kress, Ben Haller, Melissa Harker and Peng Yav)

Day 4: A Moral Dilemma

Thursday would be our last day of "Themes", and their accompanying sign up sheets. Three days, and I still had not had a chance to visit Elaine and Sabine in the molecular biology lab, and try my hand at DNA sequencing of their soil bacteria samples. I had also passed on Monday's geologic tour of the area because I knew there would be another tour today. What to do, what to do...

Well, looking at the sign up sheets, there were already five people signed up to help Sabine and Elaine in the lab, with no maximum limit, and only four out of a maximum of ten to go on the geology tour. Well, considering that the Monday geology tour had 25 people, and it looked like the molecular biology lab was going to be busy today, I opted for the tour.

My decision started looking a bit iffy just after breakfast when I noticed the trip leader holding the sign up sheet, containing all ten slots filled, plus a bunch of extra people added. My cozy group of five was now fifteen.

The tour's original plan was to hit the Stromatolite field - the same fields I saw yesterday - the Kelso Dunes, the Cima lava flows and either Afton Canyon or Pisgah Crater. Unfortunately, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Our enemy today was time.

Due to a slightly late start, and the fact that we had to be back early, the Afton/Pisgah leg was immediately scratched. At least we were on the road...

Well almost. A quick stop to top the tanks in Baker stretched out to a 30 minute visit to the Taco Bell/Arco Food Mart, and the Alien Jerky tourist attraction, while we waited for yet another car of people to join us. Scratch Kelso Dunes.

I hope I am conveying my frustration at this point. We are now one of those "tour groups" I had been avoiding all week, simply going out to see things, and not doing any research. We were a large group, which meant we would be getting less one-to-one time with the people who knew most about what we were seeing, we were delayed and spending more time at a tourist trap, and we were heading for two places I had already been. I was seriously considering the six mile walk back to base and the molecular biology lab.

I tried to play the good soldier, bought myself a Häagen Dazs ice cream bar, and waited patiently. The 90 minute trip to the stromatolite fields gave me a chance to cool down, and get my mind off the situation by talking with my fellow tourists.

The talc mine and the stromatolite fields were right where we had left them yesterday. Having been there before, I was able to regurgitate a bunch of the information about stromatolite and desert varnish formation, and a bit about the geology of the area to my fellow teachers. That was kind of fun, and I was definitely feeling better. I even found a second stromatolite sample and a quartz rock with some hypolithic cyanobacteria (chroococcidiopsis) to add to my collection.

Chroococcidiopsis is an interesting little critter. It is a photosynthetic bacteria which forms colonies just below the surface layer of dirt, on the bottom of translucent rocks, like quartz, surviving in the cooler, wetter layer of soil, and enjoys protection from the strong, desert UV light by using only that light which filters through the rock. If you look closely at the picture, you can barely see the greenish haze along the base of my sample.

Sadly, our stromatolite stop had taken longer than expected, and the Cima lava field stop was now in doubt. As a sort of token compensation, we would stop and eat lunch at the Dumont Dunes, a recreational area on the way back to base.

Allow me to pause and allow that to sink in. If it helps you build the image I am trying to portray, there was also a 20 knot wind blowing...lunch + dunes + sand + wind...get it? Good. Now you know what my immediate response was. I ate my lunch in the car on the way there.

Dumont Dunes, unlike Kelso Dunes, is part of the Bureau of Land Management lands, right off of highway 127, and is open to off-road vehicles. Kelso Dunes is part of the Mojave National Preserve, closed to all vehicles, and is far removed from the nearest highway.

Natural dunes have delicate wind formations that occur in untouched areas. These formations make very unique sounds when they shift, from gentle whispers to booming thunder. It is really something to hear. Once the wind formations are walked on, or driven over, they become nothing more than piles of sand.

Don't get me wrong, the people on their ATVs and other dune runners are entitled to play in the sand. In fact, I think that it's a perfect setup, having the Dumont Dunes, the easily accessible dunes, as a recreational area, and having the Kelso Dunes, the remote ones, as the natural preserve.

What started getting to me was that we were heading to this area to see piles of sand (not dunes), in lieu of other destinations.

The figurative final straw was our cavalier attitude toward the honor system based "Use Permits" for the area. Many national parks, preserves and other land areas have use fees. Since the budget for rangers and other people to collect fees is limited, use permit purchase is honor system based. If you are going to use an area, you put your usage fees into a machine, or sometimes just a locked box with a slot, before you use the area. The fees go directly to the management and maintenance of the areas, not to some mysterious "corporation" or into some government bureaucracy.

Until now, our science teams had been extraordinarily vigilant in ensuring that our groups had the proper permits for use and sample collection in the areas where we were, as well as teaching us how to leave a minimal impact on the fragile desert environments. Respect for the environment and the honesty and integrity exercised in getting and using the proper permits for areas where there would be no enforcement had been one of the things I had been proud to see.

Even though the Spaceward Bound! budget is extremely limited, I would have liked to have seen the trend of having the correct permits continue. Barring that, I would have been willing to pitch in, or even pay for the entire vehicle's permit myself. Instead, we simply drove on past the pay station, and into the recreational area. I was frustrated, and angry that we didn't even give it a second thought. While the others sat on the sand eating their lunch, or made trips to the toilet facilities, I sat in the van and tried to catch up on some much needed sleep.

I do feel the need to apologize to my fellow travelers and our guides. I did express some displeasure at our entry into the recreational area, so it may have seemed like I was "pouting" in the van. Everyone has their own boundaries, and this was just a bit beyond mine. I did not want to detract from your experience in the Dumont Dunes, but it felt wrong for me to be out in the area.

On the brighter side, we did end up sending one of our vans to the Cima Lava Flows, so after a brief passenger exchange, I did end up seeing them again, but with a different guide.

After returning to base, I was preparing to settle in for a 2 1/2 hour "All Hands" meeting when Dr. Kress and Leo Hernandez stopped by on their way out to retrieve the meterology station we had set up on Monday, and download the week's sensor data.

"Hey, Mike. Would you like to blow off this meeting to go see the final results of the project you started on Monday?"

Uhhh, duh...A decade of experience in corporate meetings has left me with zero desire for another. Plus, I could easily justify it by noting that it was my computer that they needed to retrieve the data from those two sensors that wouldn't connect to Leo's. :)

After a refreshing hike, the station was right where we left it, and I was surprised at how easily we located the site. It says a lot for our careful placement and situational awareness when we set it up. We retrieved all the sensors we had placed earlier, hiked back to base and began downloading data.

So a huge thanks and hug to the Soil Meterology team for putting a real positive cap on today, and helping me achieve one of my week's goals of being able to see an experiment through from beginning to end! Drinks are on me when we're back in San Jose.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Day 3: Stromato-whats?!?

[Sunrise over the Mojave]

(Ed: I've enabled comments from you non-Blogger members, although I get to moderate them to make sure you're not a spammer)

Wednesday was Media Day here. There were two webcasts scheduled for the morning. One in Spanish, one in English. Since many of the teachers had friends, family and students tuned in, there were only a couple of scheduled activities. Luckily one of them was the chance to play with a robotic rover. Now the rover that they had brought was nothing like those currently on Mars, and far less capable than the next generation rover. This one is based on an off-the shelf robotics kit, costing a "measley" $5000. The idea that Dr. Maite Trujillo was working on is to use the far less expensive rovers for "canaries" once the manned colonies on the Moon and Mars are occupied.

Since the rover is remotely operated, it can be sent out as an explorer to scout new areas, or to take simple readings, in lieu of a more expensive robot or Human explorer.

The rover also uses a standard external peripheral bus (USB), which means that a whole suite of different sensors, tools and other goodies could be attached on an as-needed basis. For our trials, the rover was only equipped with a USB camera as its sole sensor.

Our session with the rover team was realy just an introduction to tele-operated robotics, a chance to see a system in operation, and also an opportunity to see how such things can go wrong. The rover used a standard 802.11b network, which lost connection several times due to the construction of and locations of the buildings. Each of the four team members took a turn at driving the rover and trying to steer it toward a goal. I tried to drive it onto the back porch, and into the middle of the Spanish webcast (where Maite was about to be interviewed), but was foiled by the thickness of the building walls.

After lunch, I took advantage of another ad-hoc group. If you remember, the last one was Monday, when I hooked up with Jud and Mike, and had an absolutely awesome time setting sensor packs in the caves. This time, Dr. Rafael Novarro-González needed to take a small group out to a number of geologic sites to retrieve samples of stone and rock in order to compare mineral content to other samples he had taken in the Atacama, Rio Tinto, in Spain and several locations in Antarctica among others.

Our first destination was a field of stromatolites, located above an abandoned talc mine in a band of sedimentary upthrust. We had a bit of a drive, and I was in the back seat of a van full of spanish-speaking scientists. If you think sitting in a room full of scientists results in unintelligible conversation, try one where they are all speaking another language. My two years of high school spanish was far outclassed...I took a nap. ;)

I awoke to the now familiar feel of a bumpy, gravel road, and the sight of the bright white tailings of an old talc mine. The mine was a short hike from the road, so with our approximate directions for the location of the stromatolite field, we set off bravely for the stromatolite field.

Note how I used the word "approximate" to describe our knowledge of the field...That's right, only one of us had been there before, and he was just part of one of the previous trips, not a guide. We found the mine pretty easily, but the field eluded us. Ready to admit defeat, we headed back to our van.

Once again, luck played a hand. Rafael remembered that he had a set of pictures of the field and its location. Breaking out his files, we were able to place the field relative to the mine, and made the trek to the mine, once again. In this case, I didn't complain about the hike, because with all I had learned over the last few days, I was walking through an incredible variety of desert pavement, varnish, lava and other interesting geologic fields, as well as enjoying a beautiful, cloudless afternoon.

We got to the field, and they were everything I had hoped to see.

For those of you who have been thinking "Stromato-whats?!?", stromatolites are a combination biologic and sedimentary structure. Mats of cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae), grow in a shallow ocean or pool. Occasionally, a thin layer of sediment will be deposited on top of the mat. Since cyanobacteria is photosynthetic, the majority of the covered mat will die off. However, enough of the cyanobacteria survive to begin re-forming the mat, on top of the layer of sediment. Since the sediment is not deposited evenly, the new mat has more of an uneven appearance. The process repeats many, many times. Over thousands of years, layer upon layer of alternating sediment and mats build up a field full of small "towers". These towers are stromatolites.

The picture of my two samples show how a flat mat slowly changes into a mounded structure. The effect is most obvious in the sample on the left.

The field was located in an area where we were allowed to take samples, and I was lucky enough to grab the two you see above. The two came from different strata, separated by about 20 feet in vertical direction, and probably several million years (at least) in age. The one with lighter sediment comes from the older strata, the gray sediment comes from the same as the main field that we came to see.

The fossilized field in the rock strata has a very well defined layer where the thick, dark, iron-rich material was deposited on top of a field of stromatolite towers. You can see the obvious horizontal band, outlining the rounded towers in this picture.

Stromatolites are important, because they provide our most early fossil evidence of life on our planet. This particular field is between 1 and 1.5 BILLION years old. There are many other stromatolite deposits worldwide, that are older. The earliest fossils of other life are half that age or younger. The earliest dinosaur fossils are about a quarter the age of the stromatolites we were looking at.

With our little "approximate" location error, we weren't able to visit other sites that afternoon, but it was still another winning day!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Day 2: Mahana!

"The word for the week is 'adaptability'"
So spake Liza Coe, our illustrious leader.

Adaptability works great, lucky happenstance works better. :)

After a short night's sleep, I woke again, before dawn to have enough time for a shower and some personal grooming before breakfast. Having missed the sign ups last night, I took a look to see what was still left. Following my strategy from yesterday, I chose to try the Photosynthesis group's daily expedition. They were planning to head out over the alkalai flats and make some observations on the growth patterns and diversity of the bacterial and microbial life.

Immediately after breakfast, my plans were changed. Four groups, including the photosynthesis group, were being merged into one big "geologic tour" group. Meh - large groups make for little fun, less "face time" and more of a 'tour group' feeling. I hate tour groups.

Luckily for me, I chose to ride with Linda Powers, a researcher out of the University of Arizona, who was here with one of her graduate students, Heather, and one of her company's engineers, Drew. They were using Dr. Powers' creation, an advanced microbial life detector, as a tool for Heather's research into the diversity of life in different types of desert soils.

On the ride out to the Cima Lava Fields, our first site, Dr Powers described her work on "Mahana", and how Heather's thesis work was using the device. They would be gathering sterile soil samples from the various locations we would be visiting with the group. They had no teachers "assigned" to their team, so I volunteered to help. Since we were more or less sticking with the tour group, I got to have the best of both worlds; the geologic tour with Steve Wells, and the sample gathering experience of field research.

Sterile sample gathering refers to the method by which the sample is gathered, not the soil itself. Since Heather is measuring the quantity of bacteria and other biological material in the soil, any external "riders" would skew her data. We had to be sure to use sterilized instruments to gather the samples, sterile bags to store it, and we had to take extra care to not touch the sterilized surfaces of our tools. Our gathering team would take two samples at each location to ensure the quality of each. The samples were carefully labeled with the location, including the GPS coordinates, and the sample taker's initials. Hopefully, they won't be throwing out the ones labeled "ML" :)

In the meantime, Steve Wells told us all about the formation of "Desert Pavement" and "Desert Varnish". Pavement is an odd phenomenon where the surface of the ground becomes covered with many interlocked small rocks. Under this layer are three more layers. The pavement is actually formed by the windblown or aeolian dust, which trickles down between the rocks, forming the underlaying soil bed. When you scrape away the thin surface layer of loose rocks, you will find the most recently deposited dust. Over time, with the scant rainfall and slight pressure from the overlaying material, the dust compresses into tightly packed "peds", or polygonal pads, a few inches per side. Dr. Wells called the ped layer, "Layer A".

As water flows down the edges of the peds, it carries minerals and small amounts of dust, which fill the gaps in the peds, making them even more tightly packed. The rainwater also supplies bacteria in the peds with required moisture and nutrients. However, since the peds are so tightly packed, bacteria is far more prevalent on the edges and in the junction between Layer "A" and Layer "B".

Layer "B" is an older layer, below the first layers, determined by a slightly different chemical composition. The water infiltration in the A Layer leeches out the carbonates and other soluable minerals. These minerals are deposited in the B layer, and deeper underground. The higher carbonate and mineral content of the B layer distinguishes it, making it noticibly harder, and much more reddish in color.

Desert varnish is a biological phenomenon -- possibly. One of the theories for its formation is that a mineral eating bacteria lives on the surface of rocks. It is not all that well understood, but it appears to take iron and manganese from the rocks, oxidizes it, and forms a dark, shiny coating on certain types of rocks. The varnish only occurs in a very thin surface layer, so anything that scrapes or cracks the rocks also removes the varnish. The other explanation is that the varnish is a naturally occuring condition, caused by weathering. The bacteria seen on the varnish just happens to like the oxidized minerals, and thrives better where those minerals are present. As with many scientific fields, the only way to determine which is the better theory is to study the condition, and accumulate evidence to support or contradict one or the other of the two theories.

On several of the rocks, older civilizations have etched patterns and symbols on the rocks. We saw a couple of sets of these petroglyphs. The one on the left looks awfully like a Masonic symbol...

After we gathered several sets of samples for Heather, we headed back to base to start calibration and data gathering with Mahana. Once again, my little Mac proved itself useful.

The output from Mahana's driver software needed to be imported into Excel and have the average/mean and standard deviations calculated. So, I put my ol' Mac to work with some simple data entry and calculations -- Yes, Dr. Kress, I actually created tables and graphs using Excel!

On the camping front, the winds blew in last night, and my "hotel" is still standing. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will still be there at the end of the week!

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.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Day 0: Drinking from the fire hose

Welcome to Zzyzx!

After another night's stay in Mammoth Lakes, I made the drive to our base for the rest of the week, the Zzyzx Desert Research Center.

Today was meant as a travel and very brief orientation day. Nothing was on the official schedule until dinner at 7pm and a mass group meeting afterward. Everyone met together and we were given the do's and don't for the area. The usual, "look out for rattlesnakes, scorpions and nasty bugs" "don't drink the water" etc. We were also treated to a geologic history of the area, including the conditions leading to the formation of the Soda dry lake, where the base is situated.

We were then given the official list of the projects that will be going on while we are here. Talk bout overload! Imagine that you are on a research expedition with several groups of NASA research scientists. Each group presents you with a brief overview of their project, and you have to choose which you will be assisting with. The science geek in me is in Heaven! The "normal" person in me is hiding in a corner babbling incoherently. ;)

It looks like I will be opting for the "sample a bit of everything" after all. There are a couple of research paths (originally called "science themes") which look like they are going to be extremely popular. Doing an infra-red scan of the desert, looking for caves from the hot air balloon seems like it's going to be one of the most written about.

While a hot-air balloon ride would definitely rank high on my scale of "cool things to do", the main goal of the program is to ignite the spark of enthusiasm for science in the young students. Telling them that you can do your science from a hot air balloon, just seems too easy. I'll wait and see what the sign up sheets look like tomorrow morning. The teachers (and the Astrobiology students) declare our interest for the day by signing a sheet, with a limited number of spaces, for whichever "theme" we want to participate.

I know I want to do the microbiology at least one of the days, and the geology trip, probably on Thursday. As for the other days, I'm thinking that I may just pick the sheet with the fewest names on it. That way I'll get more face time with the scientists, and researchers.

As a bit of a bonus, Dr. Brian Day, broke out one of the research center's telescopes, and we spent about 90 minutes looking at lunar features, with Dr. Day explaining how their formation closely mirrors the formation of similar features in our area. If you ever have a chance to have a NASA scientist give you an astronomical tour of the night sky, DON'T PASS IT UP! Even with my experience as an amateur astronomer, I learned almost as much in that hour and a half, as I learned in my entire last semester's astronomy class.

Of course, now it's after Midnight, and I am still typing away in my tent, and have to get up in a few hours. Ahh, the life of a field researcher!