What Wiped Out the American West? Investigating a Triassic Extinction

By Douglas Fox | February 10, 2014 2:30 pm

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Strewn across the dusty ground is the wreckage of a wetland forest that suddenly wilted and died 215 million years ago. Paul Olsen gestures at the broken lumps of white, red, and black quartz scattered about. “You see how it looks ropey?” he asks. He holds up a piece. “It looks like someone took little pieces of rope, snipped them up, and laid them down.”

Olsen believes that these scattered rocks mark the moment of a mass extinction that wiped out many species across North America. He would like to identify the calamity that triggered this extinction. But as I stand beside him in the midday sun, I’m unable to see the subtle clues that his trained eye perceives so easily. As I look at the rocks all about, I simply don’t see the ropey, cylindrical shapes that he’s talking about.

Olsen is a white-haired paleontologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. He’s brought me to this mysterious spot in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — not the famous part of the park dotted with petrified logs two feet across, but instead a part that most tourists never glance at. The water-eroded badlands surrounding us are striped in pale, anemic layers of beige, pink, and white clay that doesn’t support more than a few clumps of grass. The ground is bare aside from thousands of quartz lumps lying around.

After staring at the rocks for 10 minutes, something in my brain finally clicks into place — like one of those brain teasers where you stare at a grid of dots without focusing, and suddenly out pops the shape of a spaceship or cartoon character. I realize in an instant that most of these rocks really are shaped like cylinders —  some of them squished, some branched, some bent, some of them stuck together — but most of them, inescapably, cylinders. These rocks hold a great mystery, says Olsen.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

HI-SEAS Wraps, But More Mars Simulations to Come

By Kate Greene | August 28, 2013 11:56 am
release celebration from Mars

Upon leaving the habitat the crew was greeted with their first fresh meal in four months. Image courtesy HI-SEAS.

Two weeks ago the HI-SEAS mission ended and the crew stepped beyond the dome into the morning sun. For the first time in four months, we were able to walk outside, unencumbered by spacesuit simulators. My crewmates talked about a newly recognized visual crispness they saw. Pebbles underfoot and distant mountains seemed to pop, they told me. I can’t say I saw this phenomenon. But I was acutely aware of the cool breeze against my skin.

We were greeted by reporters, held a brief question-and-answer session, and were treated to a buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables. There were breads, donuts, and egg casseroles too, but I couldn’t stop eating carrots and celery. Their crunch in my mouth was addictive. The next couple of days were spent in “debrief” mode, where we talked about the mission with Kim Binsted, one of the principal investigators on the project. Then the crew scattered for vacation and travel back home.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

Designing Spaceships to Take Us to Distant Solar Systems

By Kate Greene | August 9, 2013 11:50 am

This is the sixteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

seeker spaceship

A proto-starship built in Belgium in 2013. Credit: Kristof Vrancken

On Tuesday, the HI-SEAS crew will step outside our habitat unprotected by mock spacesuits for the first time in four months. The breeze will kiss our cheeks, fresh air will fill our noses and lungs, and if the weather holds, bright light from the sun will shine into our eyes. We’ll have arrived back on Earth.

But an interesting thing has happened in the build-up to our reentry. Paradoxically, some of our conversations have veered away from Earth, and even past Mars. We’ve discussed what it would take to build, operate and live on a starship, the kind of craft that steers toward neighbor suns, all the while sustaining generations of people for tens or hundreds of years.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

Why Astronauts Struggle to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

By Kate Greene | August 5, 2013 12:06 pm

This is the fifteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

sleep study

Crewmember Yajaira Sierra-Sastre receiving a dose of morning light. Credit: Sian Proctor

There are less than two weeks left in the mission, and sleep is still at a premium. Many of us net less than seven hours a night, constantly trying to pay off sleep debt. I should know better than anyone: my research here investigates the quality and quantity of HI-SEAS crewmember sleep—or, evidently, the lack thereof.

Sleep is an intimate part of our lives, and the crew has been generous enough to donate data on theirs to help me answer some questions. Simply put, I wanted to know how a 45-minute dose of morning light affects crewmembers’ sleep the subsequent night. Will it help them fall asleep faster? Will it increase time spent in REM or deep sleep? Will they feel more rested overall?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

Tropical Storm Flossie on Track for Hawaii—and Mars

By Kate Greene | July 29, 2013 10:53 am

This is the fourteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

flossie animated

UPDATE 3:03PM CDT | Early Monday morning Hawaii time, Tropical Storm Flossie tracked north and then west, just glancing the Big Island, on a path for Maui. At the habitat, all is calm, safe and sound.

Winds on the Red Planet can rage up to 100 miles per hour—hurricane speeds on Earth. But thanks to an atmosphere about 1 percent as dense as our planet’s, such gusts don’t pack a punch. And while the wind is often sandy, the grains are fine. It’s less sandblast and more smoke cloud.

The problem, however, is that these clouds can expand to cover areas the size of Earth’s continents and last weeks or months, blocking energy from the sun and potentially damaging joints on rovers or other equipment.

On Earth, our storms are smaller in scale and shorter in duration, but significantly more powerful. As I type this, one of these is bearing down on Hawaii, home to our four-month HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. The storm’s name is Flossie, and she is forecast to bring significant rain and wind speeds up to 45 miles per hour—which could spell havoc for our tiny outpost.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: tropical storm, weather

How Not to Drive a Robotic Rover

By Kate Greene | July 19, 2013 3:50 pm

This is the thirteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

lunar rover

The HI-SEAS crew remotely drove this rover, called the Teleoperation Robotic Testbed (TRT). Credit: Canadian Space Agency

Last week, from the comfort of our isolated habitat on Mauna Loa, I remotely controlled a lunar rover onto a rock where it got stuck. Luckily the rover wasn’t actually 250,000 miles away. It was on a simulated moonscape outside Montreal where an engineer was able to dislodge it.

I’m not proud. But I can explain.

As a simulated Mars mission, HI-SEAS is a testbed for all sorts of space-related projects. The idea is that, as a crew on a mock Mars mission, we can try out systems and offer helpful feedback on prototypes. Testing spacesuit simulators and antimicrobial workout shirts, socks and pajamas are just a few of the projects underway. And over a couple days last week, we got to have the experience that future Mars colonists might have—using a remote-controlled rover to explore our planetary surroundings.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

The Challenges of Climate Control in a Mars Habitat

By Kate Greene | July 15, 2013 2:46 pm

This is the twelfth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

Mars simulated habitat interior

360° panorama of the HI-SEAS habitat – at top, in visible light during daytime, and bottom, in infrared, taken on June 21 around 11 p.m. Credit: Oleg Abramov

It’s late March at Gale Crater, the landing site of the Mars Curiosity rover. And according to the Mars Weather site, temperatures haven’t made it above freezing for weeks.

It’s a cold spring for Curiosity after a surprisingly warm winter. But the engineers knew what they were getting into when they designed the rover. They knew its systems would need to endure temperatures colder than -150 degrees Fahrenheit, and that they would need to operate reliably without much time above a balmy 32 degrees.

The same basic principle applies to any future human habitats on Mars. But in addition to sporting systems that can withstand harsh, fluctuating temperatures, a habitat must also survive a journey to and a landing on the planet, keep its inhabitants protected from harmful radiation and a toxic atmosphere (or lack thereof), and maintain comfortable indoor temperatures.

Speaking from experience in a simulated habitat I can tell you: Shirtsleeve temperatures are preferred.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

Space Laundry, and the Quest for Odor-Free Underwear

By Kate Greene | July 11, 2013 12:43 pm
space sock-testing

Crew Scientist Yajaira Sierra-Sastre tries on a pair of Cupron socks. Their fabric has copper oxide particles incorporated into the threads to kill odor-causing bacteria and fungi. Credit: Sian Proctor

This is the eleventh in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

Astronauts’ dirty laundry could be a big problem on a Mars mission.

Here on Earth, we take clean clothes for granted, but on an interplanetary ship, a traditional washer and dryer would be impractical. And it’s simply too bulky, expensive, and wasteful to blast up many years’ worth of disposable clothes for a long-haul voyage. So what’s a Mars explorer to do?

The approach taken on the International Space Station won’t help, unfortunately. Currently, astronauts go about a week or so without changing their drawers.

Don’t worry. It’s likely not as bad as it sounds. Because the ISS is a controlled, relatively clean environment and fabrics hang looser on the body in microgravity, clothes don’t get dirty as quickly up there as they do on Earth. Still, there are no laundry facilities on the space station. Soiled clothes get ditched.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

A Day in the Life of a Fake Astronaut [Video]

By Kate Greene | June 21, 2013 11:27 am

This is the tenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

This week, I’ve put together an audio slideshow to give you a sense of what it’s like to live inside this simulated Mars habitat. We’ve been working, eating, exercising, filling out surveys and sleeping in this enclosed space for two months now.

Last Saturday we hit the halfway point in the mission. Less than two more months to go!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars

In Hawaii, as on Mars, Lava Tubes Hide Secrets Beneath the Surface

By Kate Greene | June 14, 2013 2:52 pm

This is the ninth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

lava tube Hawaii

The first lava tube we encountered was large but inaccessible without specialized gear. Credit: Kate Greene

Most of our time on this simulated Mars mission is spent inside a geodesic dome. We conduct research, make and document meals for our food study, do chores, and fill out psychological and behavioral surveys. It’s no surprise, then, that adventure is hard to come by.

But on Wednesday of this week, three of us gave it our best shot. We donned our green spacesuit simulators and took a hike. For two and a half hours, we clambered over the shifty and crumbling lava rocks just east of our habitat. We walked to the edges of pits and peered over steep drop-offs. And we investigated a nearby lava tube cave, hollowed out years ago by an immense column of molten lava.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars
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