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Spaceward Bound Expedition: Arctic 2008

Student Q&A -- Round 2


When you guys tested the Mars Rover were there any problems? If there were, what were they, and how did you troubleshoot?
Philip PhanGrade - 10

The rover we tested worked incredibly well! It could go over rocks about half its height! But there were some problems, a lot of them associated with the harsh environment and the demanding drivers. The most notable problem was the delay between sending a command to the rover and it responding and returning an image. We could drive the rover while it was a few hundred meters away from the computer, though the delay was quite noticeable. The delay is caused when a packet of bits is sent, but part of that packet is not received properly (dropped packets). Even though only a fraction of the packet is lost, the whole packet must be resent. We lessened the delay problem by reducing the resolution of the image that was sent back from the rover. Other than that, the only solution was patience.

Don’t you have 24 hour sun in the Arctic right now? If so, why is the Arctic always cold?
Thanh Ngan Nguyen - Grade: 10

Since Expedition Fiord is at 79°N and thus significantly above the Arctic Circle (66.5°N), it gets 24 hrs of sunlight for most of the summer. But this also means that it gets no sunlight at all for many months in the winter. During this time the surface cools significantly (to -50°C (-58°F) and lower!) and while, during the summer there is constant sunlight, the temperatures only get to about 15°C (59°F). This is because the cooling during the winter months cannot be so easily reversed to produce weather like a hot day in sunny California; and also the surrounding cold water, icebergs, and glaciers keep the air temperature quite cold, cooling the surface while the sun warms it.

Which is colder, the North Pole or the South Pole?
John D. Nguyen - Grade: 7

The South Pole is colder than the North Pole. In general Antarctica is colder than the Arctic, because it is has a higher elevation (more than two kilometers (6000 ft)), the surrounding air currents that circle Antarctica keep the warmer surrounding air from mixing with the cold Antarctic air.  There is also a small effect from the Earth’s orbit.  The Earth is a bit farther from the sun during southern winter than it is in northern winter.  As for the Poles themselves, a very big effect is the altitude; the North Pole is at about sea level (as it is just floating ice with no land underneath), and the South Pole is at about 4600 m (15,000 ft) elevation. The temperature at the North Pole reaches below -50°C (-58°F), and at the South Pole it reaches -80°C (-112°F)!

Is the Arctic region and the deserts the only places where Spaceward Bound will be experimenting?
Melissa Nguyen - Grade: 8

Spaceward Bound focuses on locations that are analogues to what we see on the other planets, particularly Mars. Mars is a cold & dry place and so the Earth’s deserts – both hot and cold – are a great analogues. These areas are also analogues for other planets (thick sea ice may be similar to the processes taking place on Europe, for example), but in all cases the relevant environments are very harsh and almost lifeless. Spaceward Bound has so far studied the hot Atacama Desert (Chile) and Mojave Desert (California), and now the very cold Canadian High Arctic.

How come we don’t just make more ice to cool the Earth down and prevent Global Warming?
Brian Trieu - Grade: 8

Your fridge is cold inside, but if you try to put your hand behind the fridge you’re likely to burn yourself – it’s quite hot back there. This is because it takes a lot of energy to make ice. In fact, the process is so inefficient that a lot more heat is put back into the environment, than the heat taken out to make the cold ice. This is why using air conditioners at home in fact warms the planet, even though it temporarily cools your house.

Have you found any fossils from creatures living in the past?
Rebecca Tran - Grade: 7

In the past, 40 million years ago-during the Eocene period in geologic history the Arctic used to be much warmer, and large forests and many animals used to live there. On Axel Heiberg Island, where Spaceward Bound was, there used to be large forests and today we find pieces of petrified wood (wood which was covered with water and sediments, and the insides of its cells were turned to minerals) throughout the island. In the area around us there were also a lot of sea shells from this time. We did not find other fossils around, but they are there, telling us about the past climatic conditions in the area.

What happens after you find something living in the icebergs?
Monique Nguyen - Grade 7

We won’t be looking for life in icebergs but we will be looking for life (microbial) in the permafrost soil. We will then compare the results from the Arctic to the results from the Antarctic.

While digging and searching for life in outer space, won’t the astronauts get hurt or sick?
Jasmine Le - Grade: 5

In the past, explorers to distant unknown lands would often get sick from not dressing right or not eating right. Often the climates they encountered were more extreme than they expected – colder or drier or hotter. Very often they didn’t bring with them food that had all the right nutrients, like vitamins and minerals. Today we have much more information about what the astronauts will encounter when they go to the Moon or Mars or to space. We also know much more about what food is needed to keep someone healthy. So when the astronauts go to explore outer space, they will have all they need to stay healthy – good food, and the right clothing (spacesuits) and housing (spaceships) to stay warm or cool, as needed.

Another important part of staying healthy is balancing work, exercise and rest. Engineers are working hard to build rovers and other tools to help astronauts with their work, the astronauts will exercise every day. They will have movies, books, and other entertainment for their spare time.

Has NASA found signs of life on Mars yet?
John Ha - Grade: 9

NASA has not yet found signs of life on Mars.
We think that there may have been life on Mars about 4 billion years ago, soon after the planet was formed. At this time Mars was much warmer and wetter, with a climate similar to that of Earth’s at that time. The hypothesis is that if life started on Earth, it may have also started in the similar Mars climate. However, Mars quickly became much colder and drier, and today the conditions are so harsh that life cannot survive on the Martian surface. The best places to look for life on Mars are the polar regions, where cells can be preserved in the cold ice for much longer than in the surface regolith (the crushed sandy material on planetary surfaces).

How will this project and its expeditions impact our lifestyle? Will this expedition/experiment have an effect on our future?
Tim Ngo & Dat Nguyen - Grade: 10

Our top goals for an expedition are environmental stewardship and scientific discovery. Visiting a harsh and different environment is always an eye-opening experience that shows us how our daily activities can be done in a different way; perhaps a better and more environmentally friendly way. For example, our water consumption per day for eight people was similar to a single shower for one person back at home, an especially pertinent lesson given the current droughts throughout the world as a result of climate change. Another great example is our extensive exploration of the area on foot rather than using ATVs which would destroy the local plant life for decades.

Scientifically, our work helps us understand our own planet better, its past, present and future, and also the processes taking place on other planets. This research will also help future astronauts as they explore the planets.
These are some of the lessons we want to share with everyone, and we hope that they can enrich everyone’s life everyone.

How cold can the weather get?
Olivia Nguyen - Grade: 10

At the Spaceward Bound site on Axel Heiberg Island, the high temperature in the summer is about 15°C (59°F) in the summer, and is about -50°C (-58°F) in the winter. During the summer the sun is up all the time since the station is above the Arctic Circle, and in the winter, during the 24 hours of darkness, the temperature drops sharply, and the area becomes covered with snow.

How can you get all the food you need in such a remote and harsh location?
Olivia Nguyen - Grade: 10

Transporting materials to the Arctic is difficult and expensive. For most communities in the North, many necessities - such as fuel and building materials – are delivered only a few times a years by large ships. The communities must then conserve these resources to assure that the fuel lasts them until the next shipment comes in. Everything else – such as food and clothing – must be flown in or obtained from the land. Flying in food is therefore very expensive. The Inuit hunt animals such as seal and Arctic char fish to supplement their diet.
For our expedition, the food we ate was carefully selected to last a long time and be compact. Everything was flown into the camp with us.

Do you have restrooms up there?
Barry Noai - Grade: 5

The site of the Spaceward Bound expedition is very remote, and there is no plumbing, which also means we can’t have flushing toilets. While we could put up a little tent as a bathroom, at this site we simply have a designated location with conveniently placed barrel, and enjoy the view during this daily necessity.

What implications will the recent finding/confirmation of water on Mars have for the Spaceward Bound Program?
Geoff Hammond - Grade: 21

The recent findings of ice on Mars by the Mars Phoenix probe are a very important confirmation of modeling and orbital data. The exciting aspect of this finding is the depth and type of the ice. With this new information we have better constraints on the actual conditions on Mars and thus which regions on Earth are the most appropriate analogues. At this Spaceward Bound trip, we tried to better understand the Phoenix results by looking for the presence of unconsolidated ice above the permafrost layer, which would be similar to the white patch that Phoenix found before it reached the permafrost. Unfortunately we did not find a similar effect, but this may be because of the much lower soil salt content of the studied area.

As a note, we have known that Mars had water at some point in its history from the presence of valley networks on the surface, and the presence of ice at high latitude was predicted both from modeling and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter gamma ray data.

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