NASA Scientists and Teachers to Study Mars in the Mojave Desert
NASA’s Spaceward Bound project at the agency’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., will take a team of NASA scientists and 40 teachers from throughout the country to study the unique geologic formations of California’s Mojave Desert and the supremely adapted microbes that call it home. The Mojave’s inhospitable, sun-scorched environment presents scientists with opportunities to study environments similar to what explorers will find on the moon and Mars. Leading the team is Chris McKay, an Ames planetary scientist with extensive experience in field work in extreme environments.
“We have been doing field expeditions to Mars-like environments for years,” said McKay. “Now we’re bringing along the teachers, so they can see and participate in the exploration of these extreme environments. The teachers become part of the research team.”
Based out of the California State University Desert Research Station at Zzyzx, Calif., 60 miles east of Barstow, Calif., teachers and scientists will perform scientific fieldwork. The team will study the similarities of the desert’s geologic formations to those of the moon and Mars, how microbes and chemical oxidants affect desert soil formation, and the desert’s hypolithic algae, cyanobacteria and stromatolites. Teams also will use a hot air balloon to test new remote-sensing equipment to detect subterranean formations such as lava tubes, caves and paleolakes.
As part of the training for the expedition, teachers participated in four webcast training sessions that included presentations by the scientists explaining the research they will conduct during the expedition, training for field work in an extreme environment and discussions about how to bring their experiences into their classrooms.
During the expedition, teachers and students around the world can follow the action on the Spaceward Bound Web site via daily mission logs and image captures. On March 28, the team will hold two one-hour webcasts. The first webcast, in English, will begin at 9 a.m. PDT, followed by a Spanish webcast at 10 a.m. PDT.
“Beginning with the training webcasts and continuing through the expedition, ’Spaceward Bound: Mojave,’ enables teachers to immerse themselves in authentic moon and Mars analog field research,” said Liza Coe, co-principal investigator for the Spaceward Bound project. “Teachers will very naturally inject these experiences into their teaching, which is critical because their students are the ones who will actually go to the moon and prepare for the first human missions to Mars.”
The Education Division at Ames developed the Spaceward Bound: Mojave educational program in partnership with the Desert Research Institute, Las Vegas, Nev., and San Jose State University, Calif., to train the next generation of space explorers. Previous Spaceward Bound expeditions include the exploration of the Mars-like soils in the Atacama desert in northern Chile and two week-long, immersive, full-scale simulations of living and working on the moon and Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert.
The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, Washington, funds the Spaceward Bound project, which continues the agency’s tradition of investing in the nation’s education programs. The project is tied directly to the agency’s major education goal of engaging Americans in NASA’s mission. NASA is committed to building strategic partnerships and linkages between formal and informal education providers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as STEM). Through hands-on, interactive educational activities, NASA is engaging students, educators, families, the general public, and all agency stakeholders to increase Americans’ science and technology literacy.
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