AMASE 2009 Expedition Takes Off

AMASE 2009 expedition takes off in the Arctic

Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institution of Washington checks out the red beds from Sverrefjelle.
Image credit: AMASE

by Juan D. Rodriguez

From August 1 to 24, 2009 AMASE (the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition) will be taking place in Svalbard (Norway, 76-81° N). This expedition involves different researchers from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, NASA/JPL, ESA, Cornell University, the Earth and Planetary Exploration Services (Norway), DLR (Germany), the University of Valladolid (Spain) and the University of Leeds (UK).

AMASE has established Svalbard as a test bed for life-detection technology to fly on future NASA and ESA ‘Search for Life‘ missions to Mars (such as Mars Science Laboratory and ExoMars). These expeditions have run since 2003 and are managed by Hans E.F. Amundsen (EPX, Norway), Andrew Steele and Marilyn Fogel (Carnegie Institution of Washington), Pamela Conrad (JPL) and Liane G. Benning (University of Leeds). This year it will include more than 30 scientists and engineers from different disciplines (microbiology, geology, biogeochemistry, robotics, etc.) carrying out very different activities: from testing equipment that eventually would fly in future Mars missions, to studying the conditions in which extremophiles thrive in glacial ice, and developing and testing protocols to search for past and present habitable environments on icy planets. All of this is work that needs to be done before sending the next new generation of landers and rovers over the next few decades.

Svalbard from the air.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

So far six AMASE expeditions have been carried out, testing different instruments that will fly aboard future Mars landers and also performing the procedures to detect signs of microbial life or organics in the subsurface of the Red Planet. The main goals for AMASE this year are to integrate and test two new instruments for the Mars Science Laboratory and four for the ExoMars mission using the FIDO (Field Integrated Design and Operations) rover from NASA/JPL as an advanced mobility platform, as well as test protocols for the future Mars Sample Return mission. The main research will be carried out in Bockkfjorden, Murchison Fjord and Wallenbergfjord, which are rich in carbonates, clays, basalts or water-ice that are considered good Martian analogues.

The interest in combining the new instrumentation and the field work in these areas is not only for life-search testing procedures, but also for the different teams to work together, enhancing the integration between scientists from different institutions, fields and backgrounds that will work with a variety of instruments. Also an important goal is to improve the way the instruments will give us the information we need: an absolutely fundamental requisite to study samples on Mars or return them to the Earth is to use completely clean and sterile instruments, not only to avoid detecting a life-signal that could actually have come from our own planet but also to avoid that microbiological contamination of Mars or any other planetary body in our Solar System.

Welcome to the Start of AMASE!

by Adrienne Kish
August 3, 2009

Ticket desk…security checkpoint…remove laptop, shoes, liquids…find gate…kill time until boarding call…board plane…try to sleep, watch bits of movies, eat…land…deplane… Ticket desk…security checkpoint…remove laptop, shoes, liquids…find gate…kill time until boarding call…board plane…try to sleep, watch bits of movies, eat…land…deplane… Ticket desk…security checkpoint…remove laptop, shoes, liquids…find gate…kill time until boarding call…board plane…try to sleep, watch bits of movies, eat…land…deplane…Welcome to the start of AMASE!

Martian gullies on Earth!
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

After 36 hours or more of flying and all the jet lag, the first view of Svalbard does not disappoint. Such a stark beauty with dramatic geology rising out of the ocean bearing floating chunks of ice reminding you that you’ve officially left the August heat and humidity much closer to the equator back home. The AMASErs rallied together in Longyear on the island of Svalbard from all over the globe and collectively tried to get our bearings through the mental fog of jet lag in the land of the midnight sun. There is nothing quite like wandering around the town site and wondering why you are tired in broad daylight and then realizing it’s 2 am.

A group of us including our fearless expedition leaders, the Mars rover crew from NASA JPL, members of the Slice team from NASA Goddard, the Life Marker Chip team from NASA Marshall and Charles River Laboratories, and scientists from the Carnegie Institution of Washington all traveled north to Ny-Alesund to the northernmost permanently inhabited research outpost on Earth to be joined later by the rest of the AMASErs arriving on the research vessel Lance. The view of glaciers flowing down mountains on all sides and rock meeting water with blue ice floating past makes every documentary film scene you’ve ever seen of the Arctic pale in comparison to the real deal. You’re left with a sense of being so small in relation to the hugeness of the world around you.

We are going to be busy unpacking and checking out the status of our instruments after the rigors of so many transfers through cargo holds in anticipation of getting to sink our teeth into the very Mars-like environment around us (of course only the geologists will literally bite into the rocks, or at least lick them…a phenomenon that will never make sense to the microbiologist!). The scenery is breathtaking, the scientists are ready, (most) of the equipment and personal gear has arrived, and we are ready to start racking up the science. Let AMASE 2009 begin!