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NASA Spaceward Bound Namibia Report

by Mark Gargano - MSA Education Director

(View the photo gallery.)

The mission of Spaceward Bound is to train the next generation of space explorers by having teachers participate in the exploration of scientifically interesting but remote and extreme environments on Earth as analogs for human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond. Spaceward Bound Field Expeditions involve teachers in authentic fieldwork so that they can bring that experience back to their classrooms and assist in the development of curriculum related to human exploration of those remote and extreme environments.

As an ongoing study with this project, a field expedition to Namibia was proposed late last year, once again examining life in extreme conditions and making comparisons to other remote locations such as central Australia, the Mojave and Atacama Desert.

I have just returned from this tremendous professional development opportunity and with my previous experiences, links to outreach organizations and class content, too good an opportunity to let pass by. The opportunity to work with leading earth, planetary and space scientists from NASA and all over the world, find out about the latest understanding of life and how it may have formed on the Earth, literally as it happens and to participate in this important research is very exciting and provides a rejuvenation of field skills and knowledge that I share with students.

The main investigative aim on Spaceward Bound Namibia was to examine hypolith growth patterns. The location of this expedition was Gobabeb Training & Research Centre approximately 100 km east from the Namibian Coast, from the 18th to the 25th of April. A fantastic remote desert location, characterized by desert fogs and barchan dunes, almost distracting from the science. The Centre is a joint venture between the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) and the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), with a large array of ongoing desert studies being conducted there, NASA Spaceward Bound just being the latest. The Science Team was lead once again by Dr Chris McKay from the NASA Ames Research Center and at a local level by Professor Donald Cowan and his team from the University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, which contained a range of international researchers in microbiology, extremophiles, biochemistry and microbial ecology as well as an extended team from NASA Ames, bringing together a diverse field team of some 30 individuals.

Many desert surveys were conducted and much discussion held about the type of rock that will permit hypolith growth, the type of cyanobacteria and the level of colonization that occurs at various parts of the Namib Desert, and the links between rainfall and desert fogs, for which the area is well-renown for. On the science front, a lot of material was collected for further analysis and scientific papers, watch this space for updates. On a science education front, this Spaceward Bound provided an opportunity for the teacher team to generate and deploy their own hypolith growth experiment. Under the guidance of Michael Wing, from Sir Francis Drake High School in California, a set of crystal plates were placed in a specific location in the desert where local mid and long-term monitoring will occur. The plates offered a range of levels of optical translucence, giving rise to potential data of growth vs. light, but also sterile plates and cultured plates were field located, which means will we see a difference in colonization when some cyanobacteria have already been given a head start?

Only time will tell, which makes it all the more exciting. Michael is aiming at obtaining data from around the world in this area, which means expect to see at least a couple of suitable Mars analog locations in Australia connecting in with this investigation. For the students (and teachers) understanding cyanobacteria, or in one form a hypolith, is important in understanding how life started here, but also how life could have started elsewhere, perhaps on Mars. This is why the NASA Spaceward Bound team investigates-life on the edge in the Atacama, Mojave, Antarctic Dry Valleys, Flinders Ranges or the Namib. How and where does life survive in arid and according to us mere humans, inhospitable places?

With information gathered on Spaceward Bounds being directly fed back into data for ongoing space missions, an exciting opportunity for scientists, engineers and teachers. To be an active part of a team that is conducting research that will perhaps lead to a greater understanding of our place in the universe is extremely exciting and very rewarding. Some people return from Africa with a few images, but to come back and share with students the latest about life on our Earth and the cosmos creates amazement and perhaps light a spark of curiosity that will continue into a future career in the science or engineering. A fantastic science adventure and one that directly links back to my students. At St Joseph’s School in Northam Western Australia, also conveniently 100 km east of the coast, where I am the Science Coordinator, I have developed a range of enhanced science programmes linking to study areas within spaceward bound that have provided further scope and depth to the existing curriculum where students have access to the latest in space science research and development and are conducting authentic research themselves. A feature is the practical work, investigations and projects, including a range of excursions and a student Spaceward Bound following the format that has been created for the NASA Spaceward Bounds.

The Australian contingent also contained a further educator, Ms Janine Slocombe, the Sustainability and Environmental Systems Coordinator from the University of South Australia and a researcher, Dr Mark Stevens representing the South Australian Museum. Thus providing a strong Australian connection during the expedition but also much scope for future work and educational resources locally.

A feature of this Spaceward Bound, was also the extensive outreach that occurred, with community talks, media interviews, university presentations and school visits, getting the word out to as many different groups, that may not be exposed to the diversity of space science was an integral part of the experience for all attendees and generated an increased interest with the expedition.

After a few complications relating to Icelandic volcano interruptions to flights, Spaceward Bound Namibia would have to be listed as yet another success story. Being able to participate in this cutting-edge research and passing these skills and knowledge to students generates interest and realism to their studies. After all it is not everyday that a student can say that their teacher conducts research for NASA.

For specific details and mission reports please check the NASA Spaceward Bound Namibia page; http://quest.nasa.gov/projects/spacewardbound/namibia2010/index.html


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