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A new dawn over Laguna Negra
by Henry Bortman for Astrobiology Magazine
Laguna Negra, Chile (SPX) Jan 17, 2012

Meson Alto, with an assist from rare morning clouds, announces the imminent arrival of sunlight. Credit: Henry Bortman.

A team of scientists has traveled to remote Laguna Negra in the central Andes of Chile to test technologies that could one day be used to explore the lakes of Titan. The Planetary Lake Lander (PLL) project is led by Principal Investigator Nathalie Cabrol of the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, and is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program.

This three-year field campaign will design and deploy a lake lander at Laguna Negra, which is a particularly vulnerable system where ice is melting at an accelerated rate. In addition to preparing us for Titan, the study will also help answer questions about how deglaciation affects life in glacial lakes.

During the 2011 field campaign, Astrobiology Magazine's Expeditions Editor, Henry Bortman, is providing a first-hand account of the team's work through blogs and images.

Most mornings I wake up around 5:30, when night is just beginning to fade into day. With the tent zipped shut for warmth, I hear dawn coming before I see it. It starts with a bird that sounds like a cross between a crow and a duck. Two short blasts.

If I were writing a symphony of daybreak at Laguna Negra, I would score it with a coronet. It echoes off the mountains that surround the lake. This is always the first sound of the day. Two or three of these birds call back and forth to each other.

Soon after, other birds join in, a chorus of woodwind sounds - flute, piccolo, clarinet, each with a different song. Every morning starts this way: the coronet call, followed by the woodwinds. And every morning I consider getting up to watch the dawn; then change my mind and snuggle back down into my sleeping bag. I can always go out and see it tomorrow.

But I get up, put on my warm clothes, unzip the tent, and step outside. The world is still, as if suspended for a moment between darkness and the return of light.

I head east, toward the hills of rock rubble one has to traverse to get the best view of Meson Alto, the high peak to the east of camp. This is the peak that glows pink, peach blush, dried cranberry, merlot at sunset. In the morning, it puts on a different show.

I'm high up above Laguna Negra now. I can see the domes and tents of our campsite. No one else is awake yet. Lizards dart behind rocks. A rabbit hops across my path. Birds watch me approach, eyeing me suspiciously, flying off a short distance when I get too close. They're still singing, but not as persistently as they were earlier.

I continue climbing, reaching the top of the ridge on the east side of camp. From here there is a better view of Meson Alto and the other mountains to its south, but if I want to see them in their full glory, I will have to cross a large boulder-strewn field to another ridge. There's always another ridge.

From here I can see the vast extent of the boulder field, which stretches down to our campsite - in fact, we're camped within it. The boulders are the terminal moraine of the glacier that carved out Laguna Negra. From up here on the ridge, I can sense the tremendous expanse of terrain covered by the glacier, thousands of years ago, as it scoured out the 300-foot-deep bowl that is now filled with water; I can hear the ancient glacier, grinding away at the rock, pushing boulders ahead of it in its path as it flows down from Cerro Echuarren, where what remains of the glacier sits today.

Cerro Echaurren is just beginning to be lit by sunlight now. It is nearly white light, with just a hint of yellow. Other peaks in the area block the sun from lighting up the scene with the deeper colors of early morning. I stop to sit on a rock and watch the light creep down the mountain, down onto the glacier, down toward the water.

It's calm this morning, even more so than usual, but not perfectly calm. The lake is not a mirror. Rather, as the peaks light up, long shimmering streaks of reflected light stretch out from the base of the mountains across the lake toward me.

I sit cross-legged on a large, flat rock, straighten my spine, breathe. I get lost in the flickering light on the lake. I'm still in shadow, in the chill of night, because the sun has not yet risen above the rim of Meson Alto.

I get up, walk around a bit, searching for a path to the next ridge to the east, so that I can get a full view of Meson Alto, but I don't see any way to get there without having to do a lot of boulder-hopping. Most places, there are paths between the boulders, but here I don't see a way. I decide not to make the attempt. I'm by myself, and proceeding east would put me out of line of sight of the camp.

I feel mixed about not achieving this goal. It's something I've been wanting to do since I got here. Other people have made the trek and come back, reporting on the incredible view. But not today.

I start to head back toward camp. Every couple of minutes I stop and look back at Meson Alto, to see if it has started its morning light show. It puts on two shows each day, one at sunset, when it glows, the other when the sun is about to crest each morning.

The morning show is beginning. A bright white line of light rims its jagged, slanting summit. Rays begin to shine through the ragged rim, upward and out to the sides. As the sun gets closer to cresting the rim, the rays shift and grow. Then, just before the edge of the sun appears, the rays contract and become fuzzier, less distinct.

The first bright flash of sun breaks through between two small jagged mountain teeth. Within a minute, the entire sun is above the rim of Meson Alto. The hillside where I'm standing on the trail is now flooded with light. The temperature shifts from chill to warm. I unzip my down jacket, take off my scarf and gloves.

I make my way down the hillside into camp, now full of activity. It's eight o'clock. Breakfast is waiting.

Note: The photos below aren't from the morning described above. I decided to watch dawn light up the landscape that morning without looking through a viewfinder. Here are some images from other days, when I was out with my camera.

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