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Journalist Report: 02/07/2013
Melanie Newfield

The chronically curious

I think the reason that I like experimental cooking is that it’s really just a highly applied version of chemistry. I loved chemistry when I studied it – learning the ingredients, mixing this with that to see what resulted, the delight when something worked and trying to fix things when it didn’t. Cooking is no different, only you eat the results – not usually recommended in the chemistry lab! Of course, making bread and yoghurt involve growing live organisms, so there’s biology there too. And when a loaf of bread goes in the oven it switches to physics. The loaf contains bubbles of carbon dioxide – as this gas heats it expands, rising the loaf until the crust hardens, creating pressure and preventing further gas expansion, which heats the loaf further.

For me, cooking feeds more than my stomach – it also feeds my insatiable curiosity to understand how the world works.

It’s a common factor among scientists, this insatiable curiosity, the wondering why something happens or what happens when you change something.
Some are intensely curious about just one thing – they can spend decades learning everything about a single thing. Some are curious about  everything, shifting their specialities and developing diverse collaborations with their work, and then spending their spare time on finding out about art, history or pop music. But it’s all about curiosity.

The distant stars and planets are a magnet to the curious – and they both delight and frustrate us in their intangibility. There is so much to know, but most of us have to be content with remote observation, with instruments, calculations and models, our feet ever bound to the earth. A select few have been just a little bit closer, have looked back on our blue sphere, have left their footprints on the moon. Reaching the moon is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, yet it’s only our nearest neighbour. We know we can make it out of the driveway, but even Mars is on the far side of town. It’s still a long way away.

So for the chronically curious MDRS is an amazing place. Here is a place that looks like Mars, that shares geology with Mars, that allows us to experience what we hope to see in our lifetimes but most of us cannot expect to do – travel to Mars. Immersion in this environment gives us a sense of what it would be like. However there is far more to MDRS than the experience of Mars. It is a place to do research, to test new instruments and ideas, to make a contribution to science that gets humanity a little closer to Mars.

And so to our small, but ambitious, contribution.

If we achieved everything we had hoped, we would have tested four tools for examining the surface of Mars, tested the use of dust suits to avoid contaminating Mars bases with dust, collected a diverse range of MDRS rock samples as analogs for the rock types in Gale Crater, and conducted a risk analysis for biological contamination of MDRS.

The instrument testing went the way that instrument testing always does. Some things worked, some never really went anywhere – literally. The remote controlled rover was a frustrating exercise – it took days of work and when one problem was solved, another appeared. For a few brief moments, it seemed like it would work, but then it didn’t. So the objective of comparing images collected by a Rover with the observations of a human geologist on Mars never got past trying to get the equipment to work. The quadcopter is also yet to fly, but the Raman spectrometer successfully detected organic material at the analog site and the simulated Curiosity drill worked successfully in the mudstone – a rock type analog for Gale Crater. 

The risk analysis is progressing – at least it relies only on me understanding the system I am analysing, and then sitting down and actually doing the work, rather than temperamental tools. I would make faster progress if I wasn’t having so much fun cooking though.

The rock collecting was a great success, at least from the perspective of finding lots of good samples. Carrying them, on the other hand, is a little more of a challenge. I’ve been introduced to the work of mudstone and sandstone, gypsum and chert, and of course the remarkable shiny calcium sulphate crystals that fascinated us all.

The dust experiment gave us some challenges. We are interested in dust because dust is the enemy of delicate equipment, but also because the dust on Mars contains perchlorates, which are toxic. We wouldn’t want a Mars base filled with Mars dust. MDRS, in a dry dusty desert with rock types like Mars is perfect for these experiments – but when we arrived it was covered with snow. That snow proceeded to melt, leaving us in a mud desert. It is slowly drying, but the ground isn’t exactly dusty. We have done our best to get dusty and dirty – conducting our EVAs while wearing dust suits over our space suits. The problem is that it has proved extraordinarily difficult to get dusty.

But to the curious, this just raises more questions. Why are we not getting dusty? Is it because the weather is not suitable for dust creation? How good are the dust suits at collecting dust – maybe they are dust repellent? Is there a better material for collecting dust? Are there different types of dust here that behave differently? And what about Mars dust? Maybe it isn’t the problem we fear.

So the work continues and we are learning more about dust.

In among the scientific questions, I became intrigued by the idea of explaining our science in the one of the most concise of literary forms – the haiku. Being concise doesn’t come naturally to me of course, so of course, I am curious. Can I explain dust research in 17 syllables? So here is the dust project:

Motes drift back and forth;
How to stop them spreading their
Tiny toxic loads.

ENDS.

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