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NASA Spaceward Bound: Australia 2009

Arkaroola Region, South Australia
Science Activity


Scientist Affiliation Science Activity Description
U.S. Scientists
Dr. Chris McKay Astro-biologist
NASA Ames Research Center

Studies of life in extreme environments. In particular the survival of cyanobacteria under translucent desert stones.  We will map the percent of translucent stone colonized over the moisture transect to compare with similar work from the Atacama and the Mojave deserts.
Connection of desert landscapes to Mars with particular emphasis on Astrobiology.

Dr Jennifer Heldmann

Planetary Scientist,
NASA Ames Research Center

The past and present distribution of water on Mars in all three states is of prime interest to researchers interested in the history of the martian environment, the past and present possibility of life, and the availability of resources for human exploration.  A useful method for improving our understanding of martian hydrologic systems is to study analog systems on Earth that occur in Mars-like environments.  The Arkaroola region in Australia is recognized as a valid Mars analog given the diversity of sites that provide useful analogs for martian rocks, environments, and processes.    There are a number of permanent or semi-permanent water sources in the Arkaroola area that will be studied as Mars analogs.  These springs or waterholes include radioactive hot springs, weakly radioactive cold springs, warm springs, and pools in creek beds.  The physical and environmental conditions sustaining these water sources in the arid Arkaroola region will be investigated.

Dr Penny Boston

Microbiologist, Associate Professor of Cave and Karst Science. Dept of Earth & Environmental Science
New Mexico Tech

Studies of microbial life in extreme environments.
Survival of microbe in subsurface environments. Biomineralization by microbes and the traces they leave behind as possible indicators of past life on Mars.

Mike Spilde

Manager, Microprobe/SEM Laboratories
Institute of Meteoritics
University of New Mexico

My primary field of study is mineralogy, with an emphasis on microbeam techniques (SEM, TEM, electron microprobe, and X-ray microprobe). My research is focused in several areas:
1) The use subsurface terrestrial environments (particularly caves and lava tubes) as analogies to the subsurface of Mars in the search for life,
2) The study of biogenic minerals, particularly manganese oxides, and
3) Cave geology and mineralogy

Ms Elaine Bryant

Soil microbiologist,
San Jose State University

The project will identify how bacterial and Archaeal communities in the top 7-8 cm of soil change due to the availability of liquid water. My previous research has focused on a precipitation transect through the Mojave Desert, encompassing a precipitation gradient from 23cm annual precipitation to 9 cm annual precipitation.  I used two culture techniques and two molecular techniques to compare microbial communities from 7 sampling sites in order to alleviate shortcomings of the individual techniques. I intend to inoculate viable count plates, which should quantify the culturable microorganisms at sample sites, and will be inoculating Biolog sole-carbon-source microplates.  The Biolog plates offer communities of bacteria 95 different carbon sources.  The pattern of usage at the different sample sites is indicative of the physiological characteristics of the bacteria at those sites.  The microbial communities can be compared using multivariate analysis. The project will also extract DNA from the microbial communities in order to create clone libraries for sequence and identification purposes and to perform Denaturing Gradient Gel Electrophoresis.  DGGE allows a side-by-side comparison of the taxonomically distinct organisms at each site.  This presents a snapshot of organisms which are located at many or all sites, as well as indicating more selective organisms located at only one site.

Ms Shannon Rupert

University of New Mexico, Department of Biology -


Ecology, carbon cycling, and nutrient dynamics in extreme environments on Earth that are analogs for Mars.  Place-based education.

Springs and waterholes on Arkaroola and Wooltana were investigated in 2004 as part of Expedition Two.  At that time, streams had not flowed in seven years.  Streams flowed again for the first time in 2009.  Study sites will be revisited and water quality and vegetation characterized.  A new investigation will look at microbial ecology in subsurface environments. Place-based education looks at local cultural heritage and incorporates traditional ecological and scientific knowledge in science studies.  This has mainly been done at the K-12 level, but my work incorporates place-based education at the college level.  Scientists and teachers will be invited to interact with local experts while we are in the field.
Dr Adrian Brown

Planetary Scientist,
NASA Ames Research Center

Multispectral and hyperspectral instruments such as TES, THEMIS, CRISM, and OMEGA are essential tools in the mapping of the surface mineralogy of Mars. My planned SBA research activities will revolve around remote sensing of Arkaroola using the HyMap airborne hyperspectral dataset and demonstrations to the teachers who are present. The resulting data will be linked to the results from the CRISM dataset on Mars.

Australian Scientists
Dr Graham Mann

Murdoch University WA.

An experimental hexapodal field robot is being made available for Mars Society experiments at SBA2009. Designed as a low-cost teleoperated platform for inspection and monitoring of remote industrial sites, the Mascot robot allows an operator to move remote vision cameras and other sensors after navigating through very rough terrain at speed. Firstly, the robot will be test-operated on a variety of terrains, including sand, rocks, and different kinds of floors. Measurements of the speed, reliability and repeatability will be taken under tough field conditions, as will observations of the performance, wear and dust effects on the robot. A simple HCI evaluation of the system’s teleoperation unit will also be carried out. Secondly, if performing satisfactorily, the system will be put through a number of simulated maintenance patrols, during which the robot will be teleoperated between a number of fixed stations to take digital photographs of critical equipment. The quality of these photographs for maintenance purposes will be judged later by engineers.Thirdly, the opportunity to ask experienced field scientists about potentially new uses, useful sensor or actuator capabilities or control features of the robot should not be missed.

Dr Paulo Desousa

CSIRO Tasmanian ICT Centre
Research Director

Remote characterisation of the mineralogy and chemistry of the Martian surface is a key role for unmanned exploration. It will also be a requirement for both hand-held and laboratory-based instrumentation on manned missions. Techniques include laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), X-ray diffraction, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), infrared spectroscopy, and Mossbauer spectroscopy. In this project there will be laboratory characterization of samples collected by geologists in the field using different techniques such as XRF, LIBS, and Mossbauer spectroscopy and instruction of students and teachers into their use and significance on the Earth and Mars

Dr Vic Gostin

Geologist (ret)
Geology & Geophysics, Adelaide University

Search for Ancient Life
The search for water and for the presence of life, is one of the leading aims of planetary exploration. Investigation of the sedimentary record, including any preserved fossils, is key to understanding the evolution of planetary environments. Therefore it is imperative to distinguish actual fossils from inorganic structures such as those formed by chemical precipitation, physical deformation, or worm-like curved mudcracks. Arkaroola has excellent outcrops of Precambrian limestones and organic-rich shales that have preserved stromatolites and sponge-like fossils, as well as microfossils. Some of these will be examined in the field. In addition, other specimens of reputed fossils and pseudo-fossils will be available as a comparison. The question of biogenic vs non-biogenic origins continues to be a hot research topic, and is most relevant to the exploration of the Martian environment.

Ms Eriita Jones

Planetary Science PhD student,
Mount Stromlo Observatory, ANU Canberra

Potential groundwater discharge sites have been identified on Mars and are a plausible explanation for a range of surface features. To investigate features in the desert at Arkaroola that form from subsurface seepage and surface runoff and are visually similar (in morphology, not in scale) to features seen on the Martian surface. By understanding the controls on the formation of these features insight can be gained into whether the same mechanisms could have been involved in forming the ‘visually analogous’ features on Mars.

Ms Reut Abramovich

Microbiology PhD student, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, University of NSW

  1. Radon and hot spring water, microbial mats and adjacent soil will be sampled at every site. We aim to carry out a culture-independent survey of archaeal, cyanobacterial and bacterial 16S rRNA, nifH genes and mRNA. This extensive study will allow us to estimate microbial diversity and identify diazotrophs (bacteria capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen) which are an important niche in microbial communities and critical for nitrogen global productivity. We aim to sample multiple sites, at variable depths and times of day/night, to ensure that we obtain a comprehensive description of the bacterial diversity and gene expression. We would then compare microbial communities between sites in order to highlight common bacteria in this unique area and ascertain, if possible, their ecological roles.
  2. I will also survey on Behalf of Carol Oliver  participating teachers at various points over the next two years, beginning with pre and post field trip surveys to gather initial data on the learning and attitudes towards science research. During the field trip we will hold several focus group meetings with the teachers. We will then subsequently send questionnaires to the teachers to understand what in-class practices they have changed as a result of the field trip and the impact on their students. Several publications will be forthcoming – one on the field trip experience, and the other on the impact in the classroom over the next two years. We expect the data to influence future efforts in bringing teachers and researchers together on scientific field trips.
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Last Updated: July 2008
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