Day 3, Jan. 18: Astrobiology in Mordor

Kia Ora!

Today is an exciting day and I am starting out good: I had at least a few hours rest and I am in perfect shape to face whatsoever the day will throw at us!

Because of a later start today, we will not be able to hike on the Tongariro Crossing and travel into the realm of Mordor….I guess that the meeting with Lord Sauron must be postponed. Yet, most of us want to go, so we decided to split the Tongariro hikers into two groups: “the runners,” ready to march nonstop, and the science/education group, who will engage students and teachers with science and exploration activities on a much shorter hike across the lave flow field.

Due to safety reasons, Julian, our fearless trip leader, went with the first group. The second group lead by Katy Hodgson, our geologist and science teacher, David Willson (NASA Ames), and I led the science exploration activity, which further split in 2 smaller groups. Our Mission: exploring the lava flow area, determining the relative age of the lava flow based on observation of vegetation density.

Very soon we started to mingle and have fun in learning the basic methods to achieve our objectives. As novel Spaceward bounders, all possible observations were made, “how to do best” questions were asked and problems discussed. An interesting activity I came up with was “Is it biology, or geology?” a science challenge where everyone had to bet on the real nature of biological and abiological features we randomly analyzed. The winners will get two SETI and NASA stickers….

Long story short, we accomplished our mission, learned a lot of “stuff,” and ended up with many more questions than we started with! I can say that our young space explorers are the youngest ever and most curious group I’ve met in past space bound expeditions. They are getting a tasty taste of what a Curiosity mission means.
We returned to the marae around 9pm tired and with some more people hit by the flu.
We had another group that made mini-rover demonstrations open to the local Maori community. Back to the marae, we met several kids hanging with Matt Reyes, who showed the quadricopter and building real mini-rover models.

This has been certainly an exciting day.

Tomorrow we will go with Kathleen Campbell and her former student Nora Ward (Auckland, NZ Plant and Food research) to sample the amazing Parariki Spring, a.k.a. the Mars Flat. This will be an exciting science and technology-driven exercise….So, please stay tuned with us!

Left: Tongariro Crossing trail (left). The Tongariro complex includes several craters still volcanically active today. The last explosion occurred in 2013. Random eruptions also occurred in 1995 and 1996. Right: Continuous monitoring of volcanic activity status.
Left: Tongariro Crossing trail (left). The Tongariro complex includes several craters still volcanically active today. The last explosion occurred in 2013. Random eruptions also occurred in 1995 and 1996. Right: Continuous monitoring of volcanic activity status.
Left: Tongariro trail. Julian (GNS education office) giving a safety and planning briefing on team assignments, which is, in our case, determining the relative age of lava flows based on density of vegetated ground. Right: First intense field sampling exercise where we practiced techniques for estimating cover and diversity of vegetation colonizing lava flows. We also discussed other factors such as soil depth, topography and density of lichens colonizing exposed rocks. Nationwide NZ high school students (Anna, Michelle, Melissa) and teachers e.g., Nicola from Auckland.
Left: Tongariro trail. Julian (GNS education office) giving a safety and planning briefing on team assignments, which is, in our case, determining the relative age of lava flows based on density of vegetated ground.
Right: First intense field sampling exercise where we practiced techniques for estimating cover and diversity of vegetation colonizing lava flows. We also discussed other factors such as soil depth, topography and density of lichens colonizing exposed rocks. Nationwide NZ high school students (Anna, Michelle, Melissa) and teachers e.g., Nicola from Auckland.
 Left: More lava flow mapping for our group. Right: Anna's first ever soil profile

Left: More lava flow mapping for our group. Right: Anna’s first ever soil profile
Lunch break following our first exercise in the field. Left to right Melissa, Michelle, Anna, and Nicola.
Lunch break following our first exercise in the field. Left to right Melissa, Michelle, Anna, and Nicola.
It’s biology or geology? Top left: In the lichen-colonized lava flows, we observed bright red lichens coexist with bright spots of red hematite mineral. They may appear undistinguishable. If a rover on Mars could image similar features, it may be difficult to distinguish between life and non-life based only on color, morphology, and distribution pattern. Top right: A closer look allows us to better resolve biological and mineral elements in the terrestrial rock. Bottom left. Example of rock with colored minerals.
Left to right top: Tongariro trail with tabular lava flows on the left and scoriaceous lava on the right. Colorful filamentous biomass in cold stream flood plane.
Left to right top: Tongariro trail with tabular lava flows on the left and scoriaceous lava on the right. Colorful filamentous biomass in cold stream flood plane.
Back to trail entrance.
Back to trail entrance.
Left: survivors from Mordor back to the Marae.  Matt Reyes sharing quadricopter facts with local kids and their families
Left: survivors from Mordor back to the Marae. Matt Reyes sharing quadricopter facts with local kids and their families
“How to” tools and resources from Hari and Kathleen
“How to” tools and resources from Hari and Kathleen