We were in Death Valley the weekend of Mars Fest. We hadn’t planned this but the wonder of our pilgrimage to here lies in discovering the synchronicity of life. Last year, it was the wildflowers super bloom and this year, it’s Mars Fest.
What, you might be asking is Mars Fest? It’s an annual collaboration among an alphabet-soup of organizations: NPS (National Park Service), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and a couple of other organizations who gather for keynote evening presentations, daytime guided hikes, and afternoon talks, centered on the general theme of the exploration of Mars.
Why in Death Valley? Well, parts of this place look remarkably like parts of Mars. In one talk, the presenter challenged us to name which of the photographs of the basalt fields, craters, and playa fields were from Mars and which from Death Valley. It was hard to distinguish which was which. The extreme environment here (lack of water; extreme heat; wild cycles of weather, including dust storms; and similar geology) invite comparison with the raw materials that could support life, as we know it, on Mars. For example, astrobiologists are studying microbes found in Death Valley under the salt bed of Badwater Basin, learning how they have adapted to living in the hottest place on earth. The assumption is that if we can observe microbes adjusting to these conditions, we might learn about what to look for in the extreme cold of Mars.
In addition, this is one of the places where the planetary scientists at NASA (and the Jet Propulsion Lab) test some of the gadgets that they will be using in Mars rovers. Right now, the planning is centered on the 2020 launch of the next Mars rover. Currently, the rover named Curiosity (which landed on Mars in 2012) is climbing around Gale Crater on Mars and the photos of the rock formations the presenter shared looked like the dry hills behind the Visitors Center in Death Valley. Early in its mission, Curiosity found signs on Mars that fresh water was abundant, including ancient stream beds and minerals that formed in water over millions of years. Curiosity also found chemical elements, liked carbon-based molecules, common in living things here on earth. Curiosity is also studying the radiation environment on Mars, which will be used in planning future human missions to Mars. I asked one of the NASA guys about the movie The Martian, and how accurate it was in depicting Mars and he said the movie got it, “about 75% right”. I think we need to watch it again now that we have been to Mars Fest.
One of my favorite talks was by Dr. Penelope Boston, NASA Astrobiology Institute, who is studying microbes living in mysterious places on earth, like crystal caves, caves full of pools of hydrogen sulfide, the ice fields of Antarctica, and deep ocean vents where no light is available. It was totally intriguing to hear what we are learning from studying life forms that would be helpful in understanding some of the possible life forms on Mars.
The talk by Dr. Margaret Race, SETI Institute, challenged my understanding of the impact of exploring, searching and protecting extant life on earth. She talked about the ethical, theological, and philosophical questions that are raised by the exploration of life in the solar system. For example, if we learn that an astronaut who has been in space has been exposed to a dangerous and alien microbial substance, how do we handle the astronaut’s re-entry into the earth atmosphere? Do we allow re-entry not knowing the repercussions of possible exposure? Wow.
Peter was impressed with Dr. Christopher McKay, NASA Ames Research Center. Dr. McKay is a planetary scientist and has studied the atmospheres of various planets and moons in our solar system, looking for the elements that might support life. He has ranked the most likely places of finding life forms, as we know it, starting with Mars, followed by one of the moons of Jupiter. Peter confessed that he thought that planets in our solar system were the places to find life, and moons were rocky and barren. In fact, some of the planets are cold and dead, like Mars. Earth and Mars started as molten gases but because of Mars’ smaller than earth size, its core cooled more quickly than earth and it lost its atmosphere. But a larger planet, like Jupiter, is still a gaseous ball and some of its moons, caught in the gravitational orbit, contain carbon dioxide (dry ice). One of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, has a water ice surface and may be covering larger oceans of slushy ice underneath. Like Earth, Europa has a core and a rock envelope around the core, and then ice. Dr. McKay puts Europa on his top five list of likely places for life. His talk was incredible.
Tucked in with this stimulating and deeply moving information, we continued our exploration of the park. We hiked into a new canyon called Natural Bridge, visited the dry lake bed called Devil’s Golf Course, drove up the road to Scotty’s Castle (still closed while repairs are made to the devastating floods of 2016) and watched the light cast beautiful patterns on the craggy mountains along the road to Mesquite Springs. We rode our bikes along the trail through the 1893 Harmony Borax Works mine site. We watched the full moon rise from our campsite. We experienced the temperature topping 90 on March 10, setting a new early record in a place that breaks records frequently. Death Valley is mesmerizing.
This is a place where the veil between life and death can be thin. It is a wild, challenging place for us fragile humans. Everywhere around the park, and in every bathroom, there are posters informing you of the dangers of dehydration based on the color of your urine. Clear-to- light colored urine indicates a fully hydrated body, whereas rust or brown means things are not looking good. Sobering. It’s as if God stripped down to the essential questions here of life, stretching one to see with new eyes, and listen with careful attention, and observe the unspeakable wonder of creation.
Peter and Liz wrap up their desert time and head next to reunions with California friends for the next several weeks as their pilgrimage to here continues.