Sunday, July 15, 2012

Out Of This World

Man landed on the Moon, remote rovers traversed portions of the Martian surface and now some folks are dreaming of, preparing for and testing opportunities for having humans going to Mars.

Of course, the best way to study the Martian surface and its climate is to go there.  Someday this may happen.  In the meantime, and as a part of a necessary activity before humans travel to Mars, planetary scientists study places on the Earth that are like the Martian surface.

Before getting there, scientists need to test and experiment with terrestrial soils to best prepare for human occupation on Mars.  Earth soils similar to Martian soils are used in testing rover vehicles, food production and equipment maintenance.

Since voyagers will not be able to transport sufficient amounts of food on their flight for their extended stay on the planet and back, they will need to grow their own food –ET Agriculture (like the subsistence, self-sufficient farming in isolated islands of ancient Hawai‘i.)

Scientists have made extensive worldwide searches for naturally-occurring equivalents for Martian surface materials; samples of volcanic ash from Iceland, Alaska, Antarctica, Mexico, New Mexico and Hawai‘i were collected and investigated by NASA, since the 1970s.

It turns out Mauna Kea Volcano is one of the few places on the Earth that is similar to what scientists currently know about the surface and soil make-up of Mars.

Weathered volcanic ash from the Island of Hawai‘i are uniquely suitable for Martian simulants; Mauna Kea has color (a reddish-brown,) mineralogy, chemical composition, particle size, density and magnetic properties similar to the oxidized soil of Mars.

Based on soil evaluation and testing, scientists believe it is possible to grow plants on Mars in technologically advanced, controlled environments that could keep the plants warm and give the plants enough atmosphere, light and water to live.

While Mauna Kea summit has the best examples of volcanic ash similar to the Martian soils, due to sensitivity of extracting from the summit, a cinder cone (Pu‘u Nene) adjacent to the old section of Saddle Road was selected (it’s in an area now bypassed, due to the recent Saddle Road realignment between Mauna Kea Access Road and Mauna Kea State Park.)

It was found that material from Pu‘u Nene on the lower part of Mauka Kea matched Martian characteristics better than any other site tested.  The material found on Pu‘u Nene has a particular composition of “palagonite” and may be unique in the world.

While I was at DLNR, after a Contested Case Hearing on the matter, we issued a Conservation Use Permit to hand quarry (using shovels) volcanic ash from Pu‘u Nene cinder cone for these scientific studies.

The ash is used by various agencies, including NASA, and also schools and private firms conducting experiments (primarily for rover studies and to determine if the palagonite ash could support plant growth) or teaching about Mars.

The Property is located in the Resource subzone of the Conservation District.  Mining is an expressly identified use in the Resource subzone of the Conservation District.

Pu‘u Nene has been extensively quarried for cinders that were used, among other things, to pave Saddle Road in the 1940s; it is dominated by alien vegetation, has no archaeological or cultural sites, and there is very little native vegetation at the site.

Although the Humu‘ula saddle area itself has a storied past, there is no known Hawaiian name for Pu‘u Nene.  It was, therefore, concluded that it was a modern term, perhaps given by L. “Bill” Bryan who served as manager of the Civilian Conservation Corps and as Territorial Forester on the Island of Hawai‘i between the 1930s to the 1960s.

Native Hawaiian testimonies, survey records and cartographic resources reveal that this general area of pu‘u, or cinder cone hills, are known as ‘Oma‘okoili (literally, “resting in the saddle.”)

In the hand quarrying operation, rather than extract directly from the surface, researchers extract the ash about 2-3 feet below the soil layer.

After it is quarried, it is processed by passing it through a series of stainless steel sieves to separate it by granule size into fine-grade and medium-grade ash.  It is then distributed to research and educational projects and facilities.

This isn’t the first time NASA looked to Hawai‘i, and Mauna Kea in particular, for extra-terrestrial travel preparations.

During the Apollo lunar landing series, astronauts trained on Mauna Kea and regarded the area as the most lunar­like that they had observed.  (Apollo 11 was the spaceflight in which American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to land on the Moon, on July 20, 1969.)

NASA teams have operated tools, instruments and systems on Mauna Kea; each one aimed to better understand potential space resources, limit the amount of resources humans would have to carry with them beyond low Earth orbit and also protect hardware once is gets there.

Related to the present Martian experience, NASA will hold a news conference at 7 am HST, Monday, July 16 (tomorrow,) to preview the coming August landing of the most advanced robot ever sent to another world.

Mars Science Laboratory will deliver the ‘Curiosity’ rover to the surface of Mars at approximately 7:31 pm HST on August 5.  Curiosity, carrying laboratory instruments to analyze samples of rocks, soil and atmosphere, will investigate whether Mars has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.  (Microbes are important to plant/food growth.)

The image shows NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover (Courtesy NASA-JPL-Caltech;) the rover is about the size of a small SUV, 10-feet long (not including the arm), 9-feet wide and 7-feet tall.  In addition, I have added some other Hawai‘i-linked space-related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook page.

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