Chasing Mars through Eldorado Valley

28 06 2010

A gust front moving across Eldorado Valley (and the sensor truck.) Credit: Me

This past Friday I was fortunate enough to reunite with my friend Dr. Steve Metzger of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) to participate in another field season of dust-devil-chasing with a platoon of Mars researchers.  The crew this year included Dr. Asmin Pathare of PSI,  Dr. Lori Fenton of the SETI Institute, Tim Michaels of the Southwest Research Institute, graduate students from the University of Michigan, and a bevy of others from institutions both local and abroad.

As always, it was blisteringly hot and completely awesome.

The objective?  Characterize meteorological conditions and geomorphological events here, (particularly dust devils,) so that we might better understand them on Mars.

Setting up the "Michigan" meteorological station, one of several in the test area. Credit: Me.

Despite how insignificant dust seems, the way that dust is moved in a planetary atmosphere affects most everything, from cloud formation, global warming, and weather patterns to the raw density of the air.  And, aside from the more intellectually-lofty goals of understanding the history of Mars and understanding climate here on Earth, NASA really cares about the density of the Martian atmosphere simply because we need to know that to calculate how to land things there.

The location, Eldorado Valley, is a vesicularbasalt-ridden desert playa between Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada that just happens to be a spitting analog for several aspects of the Martian surface.

Fortuitously, it also just happens to be in my neighborhood.

In the arsenal of instrumentation today were several different equipment packages and setups, from massive meteorological towers to smaller future Mars-lander instrument stations, and from sensor-laden “storm chaser” trucks and remote operated mini-trucks to observation waypoints complete with various types of recording equipment.  Believe you me, the science was out in force.

Inside the chase truck, with the sensor boom arm in view. Credit: Me.

I partnered up with Steve in the chase truck, running as data-logging copilot for a portion of the day as we barreled across the playa, jumping on leads from the spotters and chasing down dust devils in a mad attempt to swing in front of them, thereby getting a clean slice of data through the vortex interiors with the sensors on the outside of the truck.

Despite it being windy enough to threaten blowing dust devils apart, we managed to nail quite a few by the end of the day, soaking up gobs of data on pressure, temperature, and the sediment content of the air.

I even had the chance to fire off one of the military-grade smoke grenades I brought along (to see if they actually work) in preparation for a future trip I’ve been planning.  While I didn’t get this one into a dust devil, the plan is to try and lob a grenade right in front of an approaching devil and record video of the inflow patterns across the leading edge of the vortex.  In my book it never hurts to test mathematical models with some real-world experiments.

In any event, it was a thrill and quite a privilege to jump into this, my third time out with Dr. Metzger in five years.  The team will be out in the field all of this next week, and with any luck I might end up back out with them next Friday.

Is it Mars?  Not quite.  But it is definitely close enough to whet the appetite.

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Getting up to speed, part 2. (Space update)

25 02 2010

Legacy NTS atomic test

Halfway into the 21-st Century aughts, I landed a job as a scientist in the Environmental Restoration program at the Nevada Test Site.  This amounted to the study, clean-up, and documentation of contamination left over from the glory days of above-ground nuclear weapon tests.  I wanted fieldwork that other astronaut-hopefuls wouldn’t be getting, and boy did I get it, (in addition to a few fortuitous space-exploration-related surprises.)

First and foremost, learning to deal with, comfortably work around, and analyze radioactivity was a boon.  High-energy radiation from the Sun is one of an astronaut’s primary threats.  Shielding techniques and real-time measurements of dose rates and activity in a remote field environment – You don’t get experience like that in a university.

Apollo astronauts at NTS

Secondly, for obvious reasons, getting used to performing scientific and technical work in and around the unique, high-density network of craters left over from testing was also highly advantageous from a planetary science fieldwork perspective.  I’m not the only one to make that connection, either.

As fate would have it, the astronauts who would walk on the Moon on Apollo 14, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 trained in the same area for the same reasons nearly four decades earlier.

 

Sensor truck about to be engulfed by a dust devil.

By happy coincidence, I simultaneously had the opportunity to jump into “field” Mars research on the side by being invited to assist the scientist who first discovered dust devils on Mars with fieldwork just outside of Las Vegas.  You see, dust devils seem like no big deal on Earth, but on Mars your average dust devil is a mile wide and eight miles tall.  You can see them from space.  Seriously.  So, using chase trucks and custom-built instrumentation, we chased whirlwinds across dry desert lakebeds to get precious readings from within a dust devil’s core – an area that is not typically easy to access – in order to better understand how dust devils are currently shaping the surface of Mars.

Think the space-geek version of storm chasers.  It was awesome.

Then, in early 2006, I discovered through the course of my work at the Nevada Test Site that NASA and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had partnered in a little-known 1960s test program conducted at the site called NERVA.  What they achieved in only a few years is staggering: A series of successful, fully-functional nuclear rocket engines that used liquid hydrogen for fuel, emitted simple hydrogen and water vapor as exhaust, and were nearly twice as powerful as our best chemical rockets today(!).

 

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in full flight configuration.

This will be the subject of a much longer post or posts in the future, but let me just say that the program was not shut down due to safety concerns or failures to successfully produce – NERVA was canceled simply for lack of funds and interest (we stopped going to the Moon and canceled plans for following up to Mars).  My involvement was both exhilarating and heart-breaking, because the reason I became versed in the history and details of the program was to help tear down its last remnants.  Saving knowledge from this program became a sort of personal quest – I find the idea of lost advanced (and superior!) rocket technology sickening – and thus began my side foray into space-era industrial archaeology… but that’s another story.

 

View from 8-Mile Creek in Spring Valley, NV.

Work in the environmental program at the test site began to wind down in 2007, and I soon found myself in a new position as a senior hydrogeologist with the Southern Nevada Water Authority – a position I still hold today.  A perfect blend of extremely remote fieldwork combined with intensely analytical science, the job entails measuring every spring and stream and obtaining rainfall measurements across a nearly 1,400-square mile project area and making sense of it meteorologically and geologically.  Why?  We need to determine how much water is in the region in order to lay the foundation for a future 300-mile long freshwater pipeline to supply Las Vegas with much-needed water.  With the program, I’ve covered nearly 100,000 miles of territory (1/3 of the way to the Moon) in the last two years, all of it with a population density of less than 1 person per square mile.  (Might as well have been the Moon in many cases.)  Considering the safety mentality you’re required to develop when you’re really on your own, the logistics of being away from sources of, well, anything, and lots of travel time in cramped quarters with field partners (I calculated it – I saw my field partner more than my wife in 2008) – I look at my time with SNWA as planetary scientist boot camp.

Me receiving NV-1 DMAT helicopter loading and evacuation training.

During this time, I also became a part-time Logistics Officer with Nevada’s federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), figuring that emergency response and logistics would also be valuable and unique experience from a future astronaut candidate perspective.  While I haven’t had a deployment since I’ve been on the team roster, I have had plenty of useful training opportunities.  We’ll see.

That essentially brings us up to speed.  With some significant “boots on the ground” experience under my belt, change is in the air.

The game is afoot.








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