Testing Spacesuits in Antarctica, part 5

Fossils everywhere! Credit: M. Marinova

March 14, 2011
Instrumentation & exploration

Today is our day to really explore the island, deploy some sensors, and take more samples for analysis back home. While the spacesuit tests were completed yesterday, we want to collect additional data and samples to further contribute to the scientific exploration of the island.

An interesting aspect of Marambio is that it is covered with fossils. I have never worked in a place with many fossils, and continuously catching the white glint of another fossil in a rock was a little eerie, and of course fascinating!

Through the day, we walked around much of the island, partly searching for the best spot to deploy our mini climate station. This past year we had deployed similar stations in the upper Dry Valleys of Antarctica – on the other side of the continent – and having a similar system here would provide an interesting and comparable dataset and baseline of the conditions experienced by the ground, the ice, and the little organisms who live here.

Collecting samples Credit: M. Marinova

The climate station includes a temperature and humidity probe above the surface, and temperature and humidity sensors at three depths in the ground. This allows us to see how the subsurface properties affect the warming and cooling of the ground, and what temperature ranges the subsurface organisms normally experience.

In addition, we deployed a string of silicon wafers, which are used to measure background radiation. Very low levels of radiation are all around this – these levels are normally not at all harmful. But for a little organism that is frozen most of the year and can wake up and repair any damage caused by the radiation for only a few days or weeks a year, the radiation can accumulate and be deadly. In measuring the amounts of background radiation on a fine scale (every 2 cm; 1 inch), we can see how much radiation varies and also combine it with biological studies to see if the organisms are in any way affected by the radiation.

Together with deploying the instrumentation, we collected samples for biological analysis: we will examine what types of organism live there, how many of them there are, and at what temperatures they can still function and metabolize (versus being dormant). These samples will need to be carefully analyzed in the lab to answer all of these questions.

We accomplished a lot today, and had a chance to really get a better view of the island and what is here. In doing field work there is always the urgency to complete the list of needed samples and deploy all the needed instruments, but it is just as important to spend some time exploring – you never know what you’re going to find!

Pushing the helicopter into the C-130. Credit: M. Marinova

March 15, 2011
Time to go home

Despite all my wishing for bad weather to delay our flight, today was another beautiful and sunny day. The clouds threatened from a distance all morning, but never crossed the water.

I woke up early in the morning to see a unique sight: putting a large helicopter inside the C-130. As you may imagine, this is a precision operation — in this case, conducted by 20 people pushing on the helicopter to try and get it up the ramp and into the belly of the C-130. Also, the helicopter had been stripped down – its main rotor blade was gone, as was half of its tail rotor. The helicopter definitely looked sad. But after only about 30 minutes, the Bell 212 was safely inside the Hercules, tied down, and with all of about 5 cm (2 inches) of clearance between the top of its tail and the ceiling of the plane. Absolutely amazing!

The rest of the morning was spent packing up the spacesuit – making sure that every little piece was padded and ready to make its long journey back to Buenos Aires, California, and North Dakota.

You can’t help but smile on such a beautiful day and with samples in hand. The Peninsula is visible in the far background. In the image: M. Marinova. Credit: Jon Rask

It’s never easy to leave an amazing place like Marambio – there is always a part of you that stays behind. The amazing people we met, the interesting places we saw, everything that we learned in the last 10 days. But there is also the excitement of going home to analyze the data we collected, and hopefully coming back in future years to learn more and more of Marambio’s and Antarctica’s secrets. This is a continent so full of wonder and knowledge to be gained — I can’t wait to go back.

This expedition was only possible because of the generous and comprehensive support of the Argentinian Air Force, the Argentinian Antarctic Institute, and the many people working at the Marambio Base. Thank you!

This project was made possible with support from the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program and the University of North Dakota. Travel from Buenos Aires to Marambio and accommodation in Marambio was provided by the Argentinian Air Force and Argentinian Antarctic Program.


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