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Spaceward Bound Expedition: Arctic 2008

Student Q&A


Why is it always light above the Arctic Circle in summertime?
Seyla Chan - Grade 9

Answer: The Earth is tilted by 23.5º with respect to the plane of its orbit (from straight up and down).  During summer, the tilt makes the Arctic point toward the sun.  So places within 23.5º of the North Pole see the sun all the time. Try this with an orange in sunlight.  Tilt the orange toward the light and then rotate it. Is there a region near the pole the never goes into shadow?  (Hint: the answer is yes).

Will any part of your expedition be harmful to the environment?
Paula Nguyen - Grade 7

After safety, environmental stewardship (that means respecting and taking care of the land) is our highest priority.  One concern in the tundra environment is leaving tracks that take a long time to heal – decades.  We have an ATV but we don’t drive it all over the place. We just use it to go from one camp to the other with heavy gear we can’t carry.  It drives on one dirt road that goes only between the lower and upper base camps.  It is a two-hour walk between the camps.  We use very little water, and don’t leave any trash around. We walk very far out of the way to avoid walking on, and damaging, sensitive areas.  We carry out what we carry in, meaning we don’t leave trash behind.

What type of living organisms do you think you will find living in the Arctic?
Tri Nguyen - Grade 7

We have seen white Arctic hares, big black musk oxen, ptarmigan, smaller sandpiper birds, a large jaeger (a type of hunting bird), bumblebees, spiders, and of course a few mosquitoes (the Arctic would not be the same without them!)  There are also plants, including grass, heather, Arctic cotton, and assorted flowers.  There are colorful lichens on the rocks. There are no trees or even shrubs.  In the soil we expect to find bacteria. At the springs we can tell they are there because we can smell them (H2S, hydrogen sulfide gas, that smell like rotten eggs, or boiled eggs).

What is the main objective or goal of this expedition?
Kevin Khuong - Grade 7

Our primary objective is the scientific exploration of dry permafrost environments to understand ice and life in cold dry conditions on Earth and apply this to studies of Mars.  This means we study the land here that is always frozen to learn what lives below the ground near this cold environment, and what the ice it lives in, or near, is like.  We know Mars is very cold also, and similar to what we see here.  So by learning what life lives here, it helps us decide how and where to look for the life, or signs of ancient life, on Mars. 

In addition, this expedition is part of Spaceward Bound, which is a program to bring teachers and students on expeditions that are nearly equivalent to future Mars exploration.  The teachers take the experience back to the classroom.  They share it with students and other teachers.  We all take the experience back to our communities, friends and family where we  share the experience of life in the North.

Are there creatures living up there in the Arctic underneath the ice?
Danh Nguyen - Grade 7

It is so cold here that the ground is frozen to 600 meters (1800 feet) below the surface throughout the year. Below that layer of permafrost the ground is warm again and there are bacteria growing there.  In the thin layer of surface soil that thaws each summer – called the “active zone” there are lots of bacteria, worms, and other invertebrates.

On the sea there is often a layer of ice. It is only a few meters thick (10 ft). Below that ice are whales, fish, seals, and – watch out – polar bears.  There are also phytoplankton living on the underside of the sea ice.

What do you think the Rover will find up in the Arctic? What will its main job be?
Jenny Nguyen - Grade 7

This year we are doing a practice test with the rover. We are testing if it can operate in the conditions here. If it does work well, we will then bring a more sophisticated rover to map out ice caves in future expeditions.

What is a mass balance and what forms it?
Danny Nguyen - Grade 7

The station we are staying at was first established to study the “mass balance” of  nearby glaciers. That means studying how much mass the glaciers gain from snow, and how much mass they lose from summer melting.  Also, how the ice flows from the zone of snow accumulation (added) to the zone of melting loss is studied.  This “mass balance” study has been going on every year for 50 years.

Are there any human beings living up there in the area you will be studying?
Tammy Nguyen - Grade 7

The closest community is Grise Fiord, it is about 700 km (420 miles) south of here. It is the community that is the most northern in the world.  Other than the scientists that work here part of the year when the weather is least harsh, no humans live here.


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Editor: Linda Conrad
NASA Official: Liza Coe
Last Updated: April 2007
Teachers Contact: Liza Coe