26 July 2008

2008 Atacama Desert Expedition -- Phase 2, Earth-Mars Cave Detection Project

This expedition is part of a three-year project to develop techniques to systematically predict and detect caves on the Earth and Mars. For this project, we will be working at two premiere Mars-analogue sites, the Atacama Desert, northern Chile and Mojave Desert, southern California. This project is funded through the NASA-Exobiology Program.

If life ever evolved on Mars, evidence will be located in subsurface cavities protected from the hostile surface environment. Overall project objectives are to (1) better characterize thermal behavior of both terrestrial and Martian caves; (2) identify optimal detection times (i.e., appropriate day and season) for detection via a thermal infrared remote sensing platform; (3) ultimately differentiate caves from non-cave features (e.g., alcoves, sheltered dry falls or small tunnel features that may be confused with cave entrances); and, (4) potentially infer cave volume from the thermal signal strength of cave entrances. For the Atacama Desert Expedition, our mission objectives are to (a) deploy temperature and barometric pressure sensors at caves and non-cave features, (b) estimate cave volume using newly developed techniques, and (c) map caves and non-cave features using high resolution and high detail maps.

The project has also been honored with the distinction as a Explorer's Club Flag Expedition.

Jut Wynne is currently working on his PhD in biology from Northern Arizona University. For his dissertation research, he is developing models to characterize cave communities in Arizona and New Mexico. Jut serves the Atacama Desert Expedition, Earth-Mars Cave Detection Project, as the project’s expedition leader and overall project manager.

Knutt Peterson holds an M.S. in Geography and is a member of the National Speleological Society, the Sandia Grotto, and the Association of American Geographers. His greatest passion in life is exploring and learning about new things. He also volunteers and has volunteered on several NPS, NSS and BLM cave mapping projects throughout New Mexico. Finding new ways to map caves is one of his primary foci. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife Leslie and children Amber, Dillan, and Stuey. He also enjoys photography, cartography, hiking, biking, and working on various projects around the house. Knutt is serving the Atacama Expedition as the cartography chief and is assistant director of field operations.

John DeDecker is a self-taught astronomy instructor and artist residing in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is also working towards a degree in Astrogeology with an interest in detecting life within our Solar System. He is currently Vice President of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society and lectures on astronomy at the University of Virginia’s Leander McCormick Observatory. John previously worked at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona where he was involved in the site testing for the Discovery Channel 4 meter telescope, as well as being Lowell’s resident expert with the historic 24” Clark Refractor. This refractor was used by Percival Lowell to conduct his Martian canal observations. John serves the Atacama Expedition as lead sketcher for estimating cave volume and is the expedition’s artist.

Christina Colpitts is a commercial pilot and wilderness guide. She obtained her B.S. in Aeronautical Science with a minor in Environmental Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Christina is currently based in San Diego and flies tour groups to central Baja and guides eco tourism/ adventure trips. She is involved in adventure and scientific caving for over 10 years in addition to conducting field-based environmental research projects located in the western United States. Some of her interests include long distance hiking, ice hockey, archaeology, machining, alternative fuels, and plant biology. She is serving the Atacama Expedition as the safety chief/ medical specialist. She is responsible for evaluating project risks and adapting appropriate strategies to mitigate risks in the field.

Lynn Hicks is a medical doctor and received his M.D. at Auburn University. He is serving the expedition's field medical doctor. A photo and complete bio will be added at a later date.

Pete Polsgrove is a PhD student in microbiology at Northern Arizona University. His early graduate work was performed in the laboratory of Dr. Richard Shand, and involved the development of new resuscitation and cultivation techniques specifically suited to hypersaline environments. His doctorial research involves the characterization of antimicrobial substances produced by these extreme halophiles and the discovery of the associated genes utilizing bioinformatic techniques. Pete climbs, caves and hikes in Flagstaff Arizona with Maggie, Bansai, Tupelo and Rooks. He serves the Atacama Desert Expedition as the microbiology team specialist, sensor placement specialist and lead rock climber.

Dan Ruby is the associate director of Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center in Reno, Nevada, and a member of the Northern Nevada Grotto of the National Speleological Society. He obtained his B.F.A. (Bachelors in Fine Arts, emphasis in Digital Media) from the University of Nevada-Reno. Dan has an interest in space exploration stretching back to his first space LEGO set, a lunar lander, in 1980 at the age of three. He still continues to launch model rockets (albeit instrumented sound-barrier-breaking ones) and plays with LEGO sets (to build robot rovers), alongside his role presenting astronomy talks to the public and 15,000 K-12 students per year. Dan’s current pursuits include sustainable energy projects and spending many hours underground in high altitude regions with extremely dry climates. Dan has been pivotal in developing techniques for estimating cave volume and is serving as a cartographic assistant. Once stateside, he will be working with Knutt to develop 3-D models of caves.

Tim Titus is a astrophysicist with the USGS-Astrogeology Team, Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a co-investigator on this project and was a co-investigator during Phase 1. A complete profile and photo will be added at a later date.


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