Spaceward Bound – Australia Bound

Spaceward Bound could be renamed JetLag bound!

Spaceward Bound Australia: San Francisco to Sydney was 15+ hours. Then 5 more hours from Sydney to Perth.
Spaceward Bound UAE: San Francisco to Dubai was 15+ directly over the North Pole. We saw the sunrise and sunset twice on that single flight! 
Spaceward Bound Namibia: San Francisco to New York was 5 hours, and New York to Johannesburg was 15+, then another 3 hours to Walvish Bay.

Just counting my Spaceward Bound miles in the air, we certainly have enough equal to several orbits around the earth..and that doesn’t even count DRIVING! All of the scientifically interesting sites are also very far away from humanity, and so we have to drive heavy duty vehicles to haul ourselves and equipment.

During Spaceward Bound Mojave we drive hundreds of miles across the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Parks to show school teachers how NASA does field work on earth to study places like Mars and Titan. For UAE and Namibia, we drove thousands of miles across those deserts in search for specific planetary analog sites.

Spaceward Bound Australia will be no different. Click here to see our anticipated driving route, clocking in at 2200 miles on 5 vehicles!

More to come!

Because It Was There – The Conquest of Mt. Doom

Adventuresin the Mojave

The first day of our adventure in the Mojave took us fromthe plains of the desert to the highest peaks of the sand dunes to the depthsof the underground volcanic caves. Driving over the day before, we were greeted by Soda Lake, a lake that insteadof water has a film of bicarbonate salt covering a bed of sulfuric mud.  Following the path to our home for theweek, we drove by a man-made pond with a fountain in the middle inhabited by anendangered species of fish called a Chub. The backdrop of our new home was the endless plains of the MojaveDesert.

The rise of the sun over the desert heralded the first dayof our five day journey to find the key to the possibility of alien life.   We piled into five cars andcaravanned, leaving civilization behind us in our search for biological soilcrusts, referred to as BSC, in the vast plains of the desert.  Though its appearance resembles that ofblack, squishy mold; BSCs are a complex community of cyanobacteria, moss andlichen that represent how life can survive in extreme environments.  The objective was to find a largeenough population that would allow us to take samples without decimating thepopulation since they take about fifty years to resurface.   The samples were retrieved andwill be analyzed in a lab in order to discover the mechanisms by which life cansurvive in such an extreme environment.  Our next task was to find a section of desert that wouldallow us to take a sample of barren land and compare this to the life elementfound in the BSC samples that we collected. 

We continued our journey through the desert to the seamingoasis of Kelso, a World War II boomtown, for lunch and stumbled upon a gem inthe form of an educational video. We learned a lot about our next stop, the Cima Sand Dunes.  These dunes were beautiful butdeceitful.  Despite their seeminglyserene exterior they soon proved to be our greatest challenge.  Our mission was to reach the highestpoint of the dunes in order to survey the landscape.  After about an hour of treacherous trekking, we reached thebase of the highest peak.  Wethought the most difficult part was over, but the adventure had just begun.  As we started trudging up the steep hill,soon to be nicknamed “Mt. Doom”, we discovered that the sandy texture of thesoil made it difficult to progress…for every step we took up, we slid down 0.75steps.  Although the environmentproved to be too extreme for some, the majority persevered.  After a strenuous combination of hikingand crawling, we conquered Mt. Doom and in doing so superseded our ownperceived mental and physical limitations.  After we recovered, we embraced the view and enjoyed ourfeelings of accomplishment.  Insurveying the land, we noticed that there was a distinct border of plants andshrubs along the base of the dunes. On our climb down, we encountered individual blades of grass-like plantsgrowing in the middle of the sand. The roots appeared to be endless so we hope to return in order tofurther investigate the mechanism of their survival.     

Our expedition continued through a rocky road to the LavaTubes.  We observed gaps in theEarth formed by geologically ‘young’ (approximately 10,000-15,000 years old)magma.  We then climbed down intothe caves and observed the geological formation of the caves.  It is possible that life could haveexisted at one point but due to constant human traffic, none can be observedcurrently.

Upon returning, we enjoyed a hot shower and a delicious and heartymeal followed by a very stimulating presentation and discussion aboutmicrobialites.  Then it wasstraight to bed to prepare for the next day.  Thus ended the first day of our adventures in theMojave. 



Cal Poly Pomona

Andrea Gonzalez

Alexandra Olano                 

Amina Razzak

Kara Rotunno

Sarah Saleemi

Down and Dirty in the Desert


Today’s experiments consisted oftesting for life in soil crusts, extraction of chlorophyll from soil, andcreation of a mud battery. 

In testing for life in soil crusts weprepared three sets of solutions as follows:

Crust+ Indigo Carmine Blue (Dye)+ LBmedia

Pavement+ Dye+ LB media

Sand+ Dye+ LB media


Crust + Dye

Pavement + Dye


AND one Control of:            Dye+LB media 

Crust refers to the soil samples wecollected that contained biological crusts, pavement refers to soil samplescollected in the same area that did not contain any visible life, and sandrefers to a sample collected from the Kelso sand dunes.      

The experiment was set up in nine testtubes.  Every two hours we are measuringabsorption using a spectrophotometer. The test for life uses a color changing redox reaction between the dyeand sugars found in the solution. No color change has been noticed yet, but thesolutions will continue to incubate over night and more accurate observationswill be made later. 

Chlorophyll extraction posed thequestion: “What type of chlorophyll do biological soil crusts contain?”   The process of extraction used 3mLethanol with 1.5g crust.  It wasplaced in the oven at 70 Celsius for 5 minutes.  It was then placed in mixing until cool for 45 minutes.  UV/Vis scan measured between240-800nm.  The resulting spectrumresults suggested the presence of mixture of chlorophyll A, chlorophyll B and possiblyβ-carotine.

The mud battery will be used in theoasis lake on the Zzyzx property. Its components include a mat of 3000 micro threads bulks of carbonfibers.  Each bulk of thread wasthen weaved with copper wire.  Onelong piece will be put in the water under the ground of the lake in order forcyanobacteria to grow.  Another pieceof carbon fibers weaved with copper wire will be put above the ground whichwill be a conductor of energy. Four long thick pieces of graphite are then partially insulated withcopper.  This will serve as anotherconductor out of the water and into the battery.  There is also a switch which we fabricated in order tocontrol amount of resistance and to turn circuits on and off.   The battery will act as a prototype for a possible batterysource deep in the ocean to power deep ocean probes where there are no otherpossible energy sources (i.e. geothermal vents, currents, or sunlight)available to run the probes on.

Tonight’spresentation was titled, Scotch on theRocks, by Keith Evan Schubert, Jane and Ernesto. Biological soil crusts arecolonies of different organisms cooperating together to survive in theirenvironment.  In order for theseorganisms to survive successfully in their environment, they often grow indistinct patterns. These patterns are often the same linear or circularpatterns; a pattern of life as it forms groups in an environment.  The formation of these patterned designscan be very intricate.  The shapeof these microbial communities can potentially reveal information about whatenvironmental factors are most important to life in their ecosystem.

            Complexmathematical models have been developed in the attempts to explain the patternsof growth given certain biological parameters. The limitation of these modelsis that they are impractical for field use since the parameters are difficultto alter. A simpler, binary system of analyzing pattern growth.  Using a program of General CellularAutomation, a set of rules can be inputted to determine which patches of growthwould stay alive or die after the next time interval. This simple interfacewould allow scientists to simulate how growth patterns would look given acertain set of parameters. Another technique would be to take a series ofphotos and look at the photos in a time lapsed manner to observe the growthusing the rules above.  These ideasconverge to all propose real life simulation of growing patterns and theinteresting part of this foundation is that it could be configured vice versa. Dependingon the complexity of the parameters, it might be possible to determine theoriginal configuration of the growth based on what it looks like now. GeneralCellular Automation presents exiting possibilities for applications in areas ofstudy as varied as tsunami damage prediction to identifying possible sites forextraterrestrial life.

Astrobiology Relation

-There could be apresence of chlorophyll in deep, inaccessible soil crusts of other planets.

-Discovering thecauses for patterns in microbial growth could help scientists determine goodplaces to look for extraterrestrial life. 

The Mathematical Perspective

Asa mathematics major participating in this program, this entire experience hasbeen a whirlwind. It seems as if I am introduced into a new topic every hour.Though this is overwhelming at times, it is possible to introduce these topicsinto a math classroom. From the brainstorming that has taken place among themath majors here, it seems the best integration of these concepts would bethrough word problems. Students could be directed to find volumes, growthrates, and heights. We could also work to integrate the group based learningthat was taking place in the lab. By redirecting the classic lecture based mathclass into small group work, it’s easy to see how students could facilitatetheir own learning successfully.

Lesson Ideas

-Give power pointthat is an understanding of concepts, but with pictures not notes!  This would be best to execute anunderstandable presentation where you talk and students listen and look, notread.  This would be anintroduction to patterning of organisms.    .             

-Use of General Cellular Automation in the classroom allows students toexplore the, “why does doing this make that?” question.   Students are given the chance to set their own rules thatdetermine patterns of growth.  

Spaceward Bound Mojave!

Back in the field for Spaceward Bound….this time a little closer to home at the CSU Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx, California!

This year’s Spaceward Bound: Mojave will again be split up into two, non-consecutive weeks: 21-25 March and 18-22 April. For this first week, we’ll be exploring Mojave National Monument, Death Valley National Park, and the surrouding regions including Amboy Crater and the Kelso Dunes.

During these trips teachers and education majors from California Polytechnic State University, California State University, San Bernardino, and San Francisco State University will be learning how to evaluate microbes in the desert soil crusts; make batteries out of ‘dry’ lake bed muds, launch earth observing balloons, remotely control rovers, in addition to other geology and soil experiments.

There are several ways you can follow along with Spaceward Bound Mojave:

Follow our GPS tracks on Everytrail:

Search Twitter for the hashtag #SBM1 (meaning Spaceward Bound Mojave week 1)

Look for photos on Flickr:

Stay tuned here for more!

United Arab Emirates


This is Matthew Reyes blogging about the latest Spaceward Bound adventure to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Spaceward Bound is a unique kind of science and education program. Arguably the first, and one of the best participatory exploration programs founded within NASA, Spaceward Bound aims to bring real, cutting edge science to K-12 students by bringing along school teachers to work on field expeditions. Spaceward Bound tours are not sightseeing field trips; these are hands on, gritty experiences that take place alongside world-renown scientists exploring the world, intent on answering major questions about astrobiology and planetary sciences. More about prior Spaceward Bounds can be found at the NASA Quest Spaceward Bound website.

This trip to UAE is the first Spaceward Bound of 2011 as well as the first to the Middle East. On this expedition we will be exploring a variety of locations throughout the Emirates: salt flats along the Persian Gulf coast, dunes near the Saudi Arabian border, ancient oases in the middle of the desert, and places in between. We start the science adventure in the city of Al Ain, a town that sits near the borader of Oman. With us on this trip will be Spaceward Bound veteran school teacher Dr. Mike Wing, who will be offering his perspective through his personal blog here.

This is my third Spaceward Bound expedition, my first two being in Mojave Desert and Namibia, Africa. As it was during those first two trips, part of my job will be to help share this experience with the public through my favorite past time, my photography. I will try my best to update this blog, my tweets, and perhaps even the occasional YouTube video whenever I have access to the internet.

Of course, to get to UAE, I am going to have to fly about 16 hours from San Francisco to Dubai. The fastest way to get there is by flying a Great Circle route over the north pole. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but I’ll be flying north over Canada and Greenland. At some point over the Arctic Ocean, the flight path will instantly head south toward Norway and Finland. We’ll then fly above the great expanse of  Russia, including Moscow, then toward the strip of land between the Caspian and the Black Seas, including Georgia, Azerbaijan. The last portion of the flight takes us over Iran and the Persian Gulf to land at Dubai International Airport. From there I will need ground transport for two hours to get to Al Ain.

The United Arab Emirates are 12 time zones different than Moffett Field, California, so I am expecting a slow start as I adjust to the new time. Bear with me as I catch up with my sleep.

Finally On my way

(Attention: these blog posts may be hours to days behind schedule as our access to internet is not consistent)

Alas, today’s the day to fly. Much sunnier and more pleasant here in the San Francisco bay area, I am surprised to learn that the weather in Dubai is very similiar this time of year. Okay, maybe a bit drier, but 70-80 degrees F isn’t bad for the Arabian Desert on the Persian Gulf!

Because Emirates Airlines decided to bump me off their overbooked flight, I was given a free seat upgrade to Business Class! These seats are dramatically more expensive than regular economy class in the back, but fortunately this upgrade was free! It will be nice to be able to relax before this action packed week overseas.

Since I like to share everything through social media, I have decided track my flight plan so you can follow along this route. Visit my Everytrail Map to see where I flew and any photos I’ve taken along the way!



False Start

As you might know have seen from my twitter feed , after my colleague Matt Everingham (MattE from now on) had dropped me off at San Francisco International Airport, Emirate airlines informed me they had overbooked their flight and had given me a ‘choice’: Either I could give them my bags and hopefully wait around or a chance at a standby seat, or I could go home, relax, and fly Business Class on Sunday. Although I lose a day in country, the decision was a no brainer.

 Fortunately, MattE was on his way into the city, where he was going to take one of our Cellbot tank rovers for some demonstrations at the grand opening of the new Tech Shop in San Francisco. I gave MattE a quick call and he very generously turned around and picked me back up. We ended up staying the remainder of the day talking with various members of the public, demonstrating the movement and control of our Cellbot, inspiring a lot of interesting people to get into robotics on their own.