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AMASE 2009 Expedition Finishes

A sample is going to be delivered to the cache box of the Athena rover on Svalbard. The panoramic cameras are located on the rover mast and one of the two Hazcams can be seen near to the rover solar panels. Credit: Paulo Younse (NASA/JPL)
by Adrienne Kish
for Astrobiology Magazine
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Sep 22, 2009
Before we get into the blogs, you may have noticed that we were unable to post everyday while we were aboard Lance. Loss of internet contact is part of an arctic expedition, and we were not able to get the posts out until now that we are off the ship. We may be rocket scientists, but there are things that even this group can't do!

So, with apologies for the belatedness of these posts, please enjoy sharing in the last of the adventures of AMASE '09!

The View From Inside a Windowless Box: The SOWG - August 18, 2009:While we slumbered in our racks last night, the Lance arrived - somewhere. We were not told where we were or what we would find around us if we got off the ship since it was time for the SOWG.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with NASA (or any other space agency for that matter!), let me start by explaining that NOTHING can be done in space flight without the use of acronyms. I think that rockets would fail to launch if their payload wasn't endowed with an acronym that was at once descriptive and formed a word that could be shouted into microphones. Today we were awash in WISDOM, Pancam, VisOdom, LIBS, GPR, and of course the SOWG, led by Steve Squyres of Mars Exploration Rover fame.

In what is known as the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) Squyres used his experience in using science payloads on remotely controlled rovers to analyze rocks on another planet to run a simulation of a week in the life of a Mars rover science team. The team's goal was to use the rover to find a sample to return to Earth that bore potential indications of water alteration and/or the potential for past life.

This is a simulation of how the rovers are run, and we had the distinct advantage of having members of the Mars Exploration Rover SOWG from NASA as well as instrument leads from payloads on both NASA's Mars Science Lab team and the ESA ExoMars team present on AMASE, both of which are scheduled to launch in the next few years, to run the simulation. It's equivalent to training pilots how to fly using nothing but their instrument displays instead of looking out of the cockpit window.

We had to find and analyze rocks we thought bore traces of past life, decide how to image and analyze them, get the data back, and store the sample for transport back to "Earth." In our case, however, the 'rover' was actually a team of roughly 10 AMASErs sitting outside in the cold all day long doing what we commanded them to do as the 'rover,' sending the data via USB key back to the ship, running the actual analyses with the instruments since they are not actually attached to the rover on AMASE, and sending the data over to the SOWG group locking into an isolated room for us to analyze.

It is a great learning experience, and even more so with the actual instrument leads present. After it was all said and done, they took us out into the field to see if what we thought we were looking at in the photos was realistic to what the outcrop actually was.

It turns out we weren't far off. We were at the famed stromatolite outcrops in Murchison Fjord. Stromatolites are defined by Wikipedia as "layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria (commonly known as blue-green algae). They include some of the most ancient records of life on Earth."

The site was a dream for the AMASErs, who ran around taking photos of every rock in site. We learned a lot about how a real rover mission is run, and how precise you have to be in giving instructions to a rover.

The main things you get out of this is how long it takes to have a rover do what a field scientist could do, and how far off your perceptions of a photograph are from what the real outcrop looks like. Those are lessons that the instruments leads for ExoMars and Mars Science Lab will put to good use when their missions kick off in a the next few years!

A Final SLIce of Glacial Ice - August 19, 2009:Team SLIce, led by Jennifer Eigenbrode, was accompanied by quite a team of assistants for the last glacial ice coring site for AMASE '09 at a location called Ismaesestranda. Field biologists came along to help collect environmental samples to study back on Lance to gain a better understanding of the resources available for microbial life in the glacial ice as well as cataloging the microbes themselves.

We also had a group of buff and manly men to serve as polar bear safety lookouts with their flare guns and rifles to protect us from the beasts who left those gigantic paw prints in the sand on the shore while we dug around in the ice. Besides guarding us from being eaten by ice bears, they also served as a Sherpa team to carry 35-kilogram (80-pound) ice cores in aluminum barrels standing roughly a meter (four feet) high back down the glacier to the labs aboard Lance.

The award for best display of Norwegian manliness goes to Morton for carrying not one but TWO ice cores down on his back. It took 5 people to get the pack on his back since the weight is hard to balance with a load that size, not to mention the fact that the weight broke the waistbelt on the pack and it had to be TIED to his waist. He wandered back down that glacier like he was strolling in a park!

The sampling went well and the ladies of SLIce came off the ice with smiles on their faces. The adventure wasn't quite over, however. The floating icebergs between the shore of the sampling site and the Lance were simply too tempting to pass by - so we didn't! Ice axes were put to good use as Lianne gathered samples of sediments buried in the floating ice before we returned to the Lance.

Science can be a LOT of fun when you are in the arctic!!

Dining with the Men in Black - August 20, 2009:Today was a day for spectacular displays. It started fairly ordinarily, with us gazing at passing icebergs between science analyses. An iceberg bearing patches of sediment was spotted, floating ever closer to the Lance, providing a prime opportunity for Lianne Benning to collect another iceberg sediment sample. We watched as the iceberg floated closer...and closer...then we hung over the railing of the deck to watch it get even closer...WHAM!

The iceberg broke apart against the well-built hull of the Lance, causing the tallest section to nearly flip over as we stood in amazement on the deck watching the spectacle of the arctic in front of us. Of course then, being scientists, the first thoughts ran to sampling! The ever-ready Lance crew dropped a zodiac into the water and with expert ability maneuvered a boatload of scientists safely through the field of ice chunks that, minutes before, had constituted a single iceberg.

The crew found a chunk of sediment with a safe approach for Lianne to swing her ice axe at and collect a sample while the rest of us in the boat formed a safety chain holding onto Lianne in her safety suit, just in case. Jennifer Eigenbrode then had her turn sampling, collecting sea water from around the iceberg into sterile jars for analysis back in the lab. Let no opportunity go to waste in the service of science (and fun)!

The second must-see event of the day started at 5:00 pm. Field teams returned, survival suits were removed, layers of down, Gore-Tex, smart wool, polypropylene, and fleece were exchanged for crisp white shirts, black pants, ties, and suit jackets, shiny black dress shoes, and of course the Ray Bans for the Men in Black AMASE 2009 wrap-up dinner.

It was quite a transformation for a group used to seeing each other covered in mud and eight layers of clothing! Speeches were made, people were thanked, and the laughter rang out at Steelie and Hans as science and expedition leaders toasted the members of the AMASE '09 team.

We have become a team whereas 3 weeks ago we were simply professional acquaintances and an international assemblage of scientists. We shared good food, hilarious stories, and toasted the success of the field science which is nearly completed. It's hard to imagine that this wild ride is almost over, but for tonight we are focusing on being in the moment and enjoying each other.

The End of the Road - August 25, 2009:The end of AMASE felt like it happened in a flash, but really it came over the course of four days that blended into what felt like a single moment, so that is how I chose to share the experience with you. Now sit back, feel the sleep deprivation, and enjoy reading about the End of the Road for AMASE 2009.

Aug 21, 9pm-9am: The Captain of the Lance had us batten down the hatches and secure all our science gear for transit as we left Imasestranda in the midst of rough seas with the potential for high winds and waves. For those of us newbies who had never been on a sea voyage before, it was rather reassuring to see how relaxed the entire Norwegian crew was as water came spraying over the sides of the boat. We spent the night rocking up and down with the waves as we took to the open ocean to start our return to Longyearbyen and then home.

Aug 22, 9am-5pm: Seasickness has claimed a good portion of the AMASErs who were forced to forgo breakfast in favor of a handful of anti-nauseates. The rough seas had those who were able to rouse themselves from bed clinging to railings when the boat bucked and rocked. It's quite an experience to watch the water from the shower spout increase in angle from vertical towards the horizontal. Science experiments were concluded and gear packed up for storage as the realization that this year's AMASE expedition was coming to an end.

5pm-6pm: In true AMASE tradition, we all donned our black suits and Ray-Bans for the Men in Black 2009 photo shoot. We came armed with our 'weapons' - rifles and flare guns, ice axes, rock hammers, knives, ice coring barrels, and of course light sabers and succeeded in scaring the three locals staying in the cabin next to our photo shoot location. We continued the fun on the deck of the Lance taking group shots of each of the science teams as well as NASA, ESA, and Carnegie teams. It's a fun way of preserving the memories of the expedition thanks to Kjell Ove's mad skills with a camera, and his quickness which prevented a great deal of hypothermia, especially for the ladies of AMASE who opted for cocktail dresses instead of suits which could hide layers of thermal underwear! The sacrifices women make for a good photo!

6pm-1am: Arrival in Ny-Alesund to pack up gear for storage for next year's AMASE expedition and unload into the King's Bay warehouse. This is a homecoming of sorts for those of us who worked in the Marinlab for nearly two weeks at the start of the expedition. You realize just how much gear it takes to run the kind of ambitious science program that this year's AMASErs engaged in when you see all the boxes and gas tanks lined up in the warehouse. The Lance crew was invaluable in helping to hoist huge loads of gear from the ship's hold to the deck as science operations were wrapped up for AMASE 2009. The break on solid land was much needed for those who had suffered from sea-sickness. We loaded back onto the Lance a ton lighter and continued our steam towards civilization.

Aug 23, 1am-1pm: The open ocean once again claimed its victims of seasickness and the rocking motion of the Lance in the rough seas turned into more of a cork-screw motion. Those who went on deck either to breathe fresh air and gain their bearings or to check on science equipment in the labs on deck were treated to the alternating views of sea then sky then sea then sky as the ship bobbed up and down in the waves.

1pm: The Lance docks in Longyearbyen and then the frenetic motions of unloading begin. The rover was raised from the hold and placed into a truck for transport to another ship to begin its voyage home by sea. Action packers full of beakers, hoses, instruments, samples, and of course duct tape were delivered to Pole Position for air delivery back to everyone's home labs. It was a bittersweet experience saying goodbye to the crew of the Lance who had made our trip so enjoyable. They helped lift and load, delivered us to field sites, fed us, kept everything clean, made us laugh, woke us up, and gave us all reasons to smile. We watched as another science team loaded their gear onto Lance and stored food for their voyage in the hold. It's hard to believe that our expedition is over....

5pm-Unholy Early AM: Naps, showers, and souvenir shopping were the orders of the day before enjoying a last supper together. Laughter and camaraderie set the mood as a group of scientists who were acquaintances three weeks ago left as a team of AMASErs. Quick naps were caught before 2:30am wake-up calls and 3am taxis to the Longyearbyen airport for 4am flights from Svalbard back to the mainland of Norway. Hugs were shared all around as each flight took off. We are all running on pure adrenaline at this point - that and endless rounds of coffee as we wait to board our flights. Snoring and drooling AMASErs were comatose before the wheels were even stowed after take off.

Aug 24. Who-knows-what-time-or-time-zone-anymore....: The entire day was a whirlwind of security checkpoints, boarding lounges, airport cafes for coffee runs, "What can I get you to drink?", "Do you want the chicken or the pasta?", bag checks, passport control, and cattle gate mazes of passengers waiting for the next checkpoint. You could identify the AMASErs in the airports by the side-to-side rocking motion we all had as a left-over from our time on the Lance.

We arrived back in Washington DC to two very confusing phenomena after nearly four weeks in the arctic:

(1) heat and humidity (it's a shock to the system to go from 0C to 28C....not to mention all the layers of warm clothes we were shedding along the way as the temperature increased!), and

(2) darkness.

It's amazing how confusing darkness is after weeks of 24-hour sunlight. The DC locals welcomed us home with a good show of DC manners - hurried people pushed past and around us and all our gear just to remind us that we were back in the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis again. Exhaustion set in as we headed back to the lab to store precious samples in fridges and freezers before we could escape home and indulge in hot baths, beds that didn't rock, and some serious alone time after three weeks of constant contact with people.

Aug 25, sometime-AM: AMASE 2009 is officially over, but the memories of the experience will last a lifetime. The science will continue over the next year as samples are further studied in labs, papers will be written, conference presentations given, and plans made for what needs to be done next year to follow up on these results. Big thanks go out to our fearless leaders: Andrew Steele (science lead), Hans Amundsen (expedition lead), Lianne Benning and Pan Conrad (Management Team), and everyone who worked behind the scenes to make sure that everyone's science was facilitated (you all know who you are). We had a safe, productive, and fun three weeks together thanks to everyone's hard work and participation.

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