05 June 2009

2009 Atacama Desert Expedition, Earth-Mars Cave Detection Project

We arrived in country on 01 June. The advance party consisted of Tim, Dan, Christina and myself. Our objective was to arrive Calama, go to the hardware and grocery story, and set up the house prior to the arrival of the rest of the team. We effortlessly picked up the vehicles from the Calama Airport and we went directly to Hotel Agua Desierto. We were all completely spent after well over two days on planes and in airports.

We arrived to San Pedro de Atacama on 02 June, and began to set up the house. Last year it took us well over a week to set up the house. This year, we did it in less than a day. Dialing in the house goes much quicker when you know where all the stores are and exactly what you need.

Our objectives for this year’s expedition are to: (a) complete the mapping effort for all our study caves; (b) upload data from our instruments, replace batteries and relaunch all instruments currently deployed within our study caves; and, (c) conduct near real-time analysis of cave and non-cave feature data. This third objective is imperative to ensure proper deployment of sensors for the second year of data collection. Because the temperature and barometric pressure data are only extracted once per year, the analysis of these data while still in the field allows for modifications of the placement of sensors and the number of sensors used prior to departing the Atacama Desert. Without the capability of near real time analysis, modifications emplacement strategy on a per cave basis would not occur until year 3, thus potentially diminishing the value of data collected.

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 once again been honored with the distinction as an Explorer's Club Flag Expedition.

So, now to meet the 2009 Atacama Desert expedition team…

Team 1: Sensor and Data Management

Jut Wynne, Expedition Lead -- I am currently working on his PhD in biology from Northern Arizona University. For my dissertation research, I am developing models to characterize cave communities in Arizona and New Mexico. I serve the 2009 Atacama Desert Expedition as the project’s expedition leader and overall project manager.

Tim Titus, No. 2, Deputy Expedition Lead -- Tim 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. This will be Tim's second tour in the Atacama on this project. He has also served as number 2 during the Mojave Desert Expedition.

Lynn Hicks, Senior Medical Officer -- Lynn is a medical doctor and received his M.D. at Auburn University. He is also a member of the Explorers Club. He will be serving the expedition's field medical doctor. Lynn is also a veteran of this project. He served as our medical doctor last year. Fortunately, he only had to "doctor" a smashed finger last year. We are hopeful his expertise will not be required again this year.

Team 2: Cartography Team

Dan Ruby, Number 3, Cartography Lead -- Dan Ruby is the associate director of Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center in Reno, Nevada, a member of the Explorers Club and a member of the Northern Nevada Grotto of the National Speleological Society. Dan has served as a cartographer on the 2008 Atacama Expedition, a field technician n the 2008 Rapa Nui Cave Biodiversity Expedition and the lead cartographer on the 2008 Mojave Desert Expedition. 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 has been developing a paper on these techniques. We anticipate this paper to be published within the next six months.

Christina Colpitts, Number 4, Safety Chief, Cartographic Technician -- Christina 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 has worked on two cave expeditions south of the equator. She served as safety chief/ medical specialist during both the 2008 Atacama Expedition and the 2008 Rapa Nui Cave Biodiversity Expedition. She will be serving this expedition as the safety chief/ medical specialist. She will be responsible for evaluating project risks and adapting appropriate strategies to mitigate risks in the field.

Denise Hill, EMT, Cartographic Technician -- Denise is a veteran to cave mapping; in 2008, she served as Safety Chief and cartographic technician for the 2008 Mojave Desert Expedition. She is an EMT and will round out our three person medical team.

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