Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

A few posts ago I updated you on end of season plans.   I had the opportunity to talk to both Jim and John extensively last night, and while the conversation was wide-ranging (everything from who’s going to win the football games tonight to where we’re staying at March’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference),  here’s the key new point.   The team is indeed going to try and pull out from Miller Range via the Basler aircraft,  but they’re doing so without staging through CTAM as an intermediate step.   It’ll take two or three very full days to get this done,  and the team has to spend a lot of hours immediately grooming a skiway at their Miller Range campsite;  but it should make the transition a little faster than I described earlier.

One other note with a humorous slant.  Right now the initial plan is for Jani, Barb, Manavi and Morgan to be the first to fly home. For obvious reasons, they view this as a product of a rather obvious gender bias.  Rumor has it they are considering a protest of some kind.

Now I won’t second guess the field team leader’s decisions (I’m 13,000 km away).  Let’s just say there is always a LOT more to the story.  Every year we try to have about have the party go home early and the other stay out to the end,  so the cargo train has folks on both ends, pushing and pulling in a figurative sense.  And we like to have ANSMET vets on both ends as well who know how to deal with things.   Then there’s what’s waiting back in the civilized world;  Most of the team is volunteers who need to get back to the real lives they put on hold for two months or more.  Barb and Jani,  for example, are both senior scientists that have been out in the field since early December, and have a huge backlog of space stuff to deal with.  Manavi left her job in Hawai’i andhas a new job waiting for her at U of Chicago she needs to start,  Morgan is a newlywed with a husband waiting and needs to write a dissertation (maybe not in that order)……  there are lots of reasons behind the decisions on who goes back to civilization first,  and John and Jim haven’t been seriously gender-biased in my 30 years of experience with them both.

My only comment is this;   Are they aware they just set up the absolutely perfect Antarctic horror movie scenario?   C’mon, it’s too good to be just chance…….

“You women go ahead first;  us men will stay back here and take care of things…….”

 

-posted by rph

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

 

Winds were perfect yesterday for getting a kite cam up in the air. You can see our four main tents, the poo and science tents, our skidoos, a red sled, some fuel and cargo depots. The distant horizon at the top continues much like this for 350 miles to the South Pole, and on for many hundreds of miles beyond to the east coast. Many thanks to Ralph Lorenz for his gear!

-posted by Jani

 

Editorial note from Ralph:

This is a great opportunity to explain a bit about our camp architecture, so I’m chiming in.  In this view South (or more SSE) is at the top, and that’s where the wind is coming from.  The wind is the force of nature that affects us the most, and as a result ANSMET camps are set up to deal with it.  The top row of four tents is where we live,  two to a tent, with doors in the downwind direction (some Antarcticans prefer a side door arrangement. That lets in less snow when open but lets in a much stronger blast of cold wind).  They are separated by 15-20 meters or so,  or sometimes more.  Get them too close together, they create a broad air dam that enhances drifting off to the sides. Get them just right and the Bernoulli effect sends that snow far downwind.

Off to the ends of that row on either side are cargo lines;  the crates and boxes of stuff we use every day layed out in a line parallel to the wind to avoid big drifting. After 37 years of doing this we have a very nice collection of crates that are both windproof and can be opened without pulling your gloves off.

The next row from the top is mostly snowmobiles, and some flags too.  The snowmobiles sit nose into the wind and are covered to keep snow out of their innards. Flags left lying down get buried quickly, since they are “rough” to the wind, creating turbulence that drops the suspended snow.  Leave them standing and you get an awful cacophony of flapping, leading to nightmares straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  We tend to bundle them together, and leave only one small flag standing so we can dig them out of the drift they create.

 

Very purposefully downwind are two tents that can’t be called essential but in fact make ANSMET camp life livable;  the Poo tent and the Science tent (also called the Party tent).   The latter is basically a Scott tent that’s old, beat up,  and has no liner;  we use it to store crates that we really don’t want snow to get in (like electronics, collection kits, etc) and as a workplace when things need repair, like our solar power centers or snowmobiles (the tent becomes a garage when we drop it over the hood of the skidoo).   It gets called the party tent because it’s the only indoor space we have where 8 can gather in reasonable comfort,  so when it’s xmas or new years, that’s where we end up.   Usually our small camp oven is set up in there for warm and the occasional roast game hen.

The Poo tent has an obvious use, and usually is very Scandinavian Modern in decor.  A few boxes of toilet paper, trash bags and hand sanitizer sit at the walls,  and in the middle is a bucket with (if you’re lucky) a big pink foam seat.   I won’t lie to you,  the comfort aspect of the Poo tent is not trivial.  When I started in this business we simply went outside in the blowing wind,  dug a hole (or not),  dropped trou and let ‘er rip.   But there’s a “green” aspect to this as well- once we knew McMurdo was equipped to deal with it, we embraced the charge to return all solid human waste to McMurdo for proper disposal.  So yes,  as a very early post said,   ANSMET really can be about moving  ”…. S@#$ from one godforsaken place to another”.    The Poo tent helps us with that.

There’s another cluster of camp stuff further north,  off the bottom of the page-  it’s our refueling station,  about 100 ft downwind and sidewind from camp.  Usually we have 20-30 propane bottles (used for heating and cooking) and 6-16 motor fuel barrels (for the snowmobiles).  Like the cargo lines discussed earlier, they’re laid out in lines parallel to the wind to avoid drifting. We try to keep this area very uncluttered so that snowmobiles can maneuver easily and we can manage the risk of spills without difficulty.

One final thing.  A fair number of people are amazed that we’re not living in buildings at some base or the polar equivalent of RV’s, driving around in vehicles with sealed cabs, that kind of thing.  We have seriously considered such things,  but in fact they trade away function for comfort. First it’s important to note that aboriginal peoples have been living in similar environments for tens of thousands of years with few permanent buildings of any kind;  the hardship level is exaggerated, particularly given the comforts we now associate with a modern home.  We live primitive,  yes,  but it’s not “barely living”.   Our long history of Antarctic work has allowed us to find a sweet spot in the space between logistical capability, the capacity of people to deal with the weather and the very remote places we need to go.  Add more gear or stay closer to home,  suddenly we can’t get to most of the meteorites due to cost, lack of aircraft, or lack of range.   We’ve got a “cowpoke” kind of life now,  mobile enough to get where we need to go without it being too much of a burden on USAP, light enough for 8 people to deal with,  and everyone with their own “hoss” (the snowmobiles) letting us be very very flexible in terms of daily activities.   I don’t think we’ll be messing with this basic design unless we’re forced to.

 

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

Maybe this is why may hair is all over everything

Today we woke to 35 knot winds, with snow blowing everywhere, covering boxes, and bags and drifting in our tent doors. After the initial scramble to cover the skidoos, there was nothing left possible to do outside, so we crawled back in our warm bags. When the winds are blowing, it makes the tent heat retention less effective, so temps inside at about shoulder level were 13 degrees this morning (-5 outside). We are alternating between sleeping, eating and reading, which is a nice and much needed way to spend a day in the field. Tonight we’ll make pizzas in our camp oven, for the New Years we haven’t been able to celebrate yet all together.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having:

Thoughts in a Down Bag

A high wail of wind In gradual crescendo and decrescendo

A bamboo’s reedy trill Or is it Hawaiian tree frogs

Constant flapping as giant sheets hung to dry

Punctuated by solid raps from a ghostly neighbor

Hiss of firn flung onto the tent Or is it a Saharan sandstorm

Oscillating, vibrating, ricocheting walls In a slurry of throaty whistles

Then calm and Silence

The hiss of rushing pulse Disrupted by deep, cracking booms

Warped by contorted passage Through deep ice

-posted by Jani

- Thank you Sherry, Ralph and Jonathan for the texts! Preston, good job finding me – let’s talk.

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

Jim gazing out over the Marsh glacier, with favorite field team management tool in hand

 

 

Hi all,  Ralph here.    In addition to the post “ANSMET by the numbers” I got some details on the pull-out of the team, which effectively has begun.   In the simplest terms it’s a reverse of the put-in,  with the team shuttling in smaller planes (Twin Otter) back to the CTAM landing site, then taking bigger planes (usually LC-130) back to McMurdo.   But just as with the put-in,  there are issues. To quote the email I got from Jani this morning…..

“……….there are no LC-130s available to get us out of the field. No joke.”

Definitely not a joke, and I won’t speculate much as to where the problem comes from.  Suffice it to say that the US Antarctic Program has been hit very hard by the sequester with a shutdown piled on top, and of course that causes a ton of issues when trying to support someone way out on the tiny tip of the farthest branch of the logistical tree.

That said,  there’s a lovely (if a little bit less efficient)  Plan B.  Again to quote that email……

“…..they have found a Basler they are planning to send Wed of next week (we are backup for Mon)…”

Our relationship with the Basler aircraft is a long and strange one- we love that plane,  but it hasn’t really worked well for us.  It’s our airplane equivalent of that sweater you bought because it looks fantastic,  but then you never wear it because it fits wrong and it’s a little too itchy.   The Basler is a beautiful aircraft-  a re-engineered DC-3 that’s elegant, capable and frankly,  fun to fly in.  It sits in between the Twin Otter and the LC-130 in terms of cargo capacity, landing strip needs and speed, which sounds ideal.   But it means a pull-out from CTAM to McMurdo by Basler will take several more flights (maybe 4-5) than the two an LC-130 would take.  Loading the Basler is both easier and harder; the Basler door sits 6 feet off the ground and there’s no convenient cargo ramp,  but we don’t have to organize everything into military-style pallets.  As a result, we tend to form bucket brigades, long lines of folks handing hundreds of crates and boxes from one to the other up into the aircraft, both during loading and unloading.  And it’s a tail-dragger that needs a relatively smooth and long skiway for takeoffs and landings, which soon meant a need for extensive skiway grooming (we HATE grooming).    About 15 years ago we thought we’d be consistent users of the Basler,  but we quickly learned that the more robust deep-field landing capabilities of the Twin Otters more than compensated for their slower speed and much lower cargo capacity, given that all ANSMET targets seem to be in difficult places to get to.

 

The result of all this is that the pull-out may prove to be a tedious process.  The skiway at CTAM needs to be groomed again, there will be longer waits between aircraft (there is only one Basler),  our team and their gear will be trickling back to McMurdo over the next week or so, a bit at a time.  Things will be separated, people separated, goals diverge…..     I will try to keep you up-to-date as best I can.

 

For the loved ones back home (or maybe even waiting in Christchurch),  Patience is the best course.   I manage it by realizing that the field team has now taken their first steps toward home,  and that every step they take from now on is in our direction. As long as no steps are backward, it is all progress.

 

-posted by rph

 

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

The proceeds of a 47 meteorite day

 

2 Days left in the season and this my first and last blog so I thought I would give you ANSMET by the numbers, a kind of primer on the program and generally fun factoids concerning our mission!

1912 Year that the first meteorite was found in Antarctica, by Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition.

9 Number of meteorites found by JARE-10 (Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition) in 1969. Among the nine were several different petrographic types which led the Japanese to note there was a possible concentration mechanism at work in the Antarctic ice.

1976 Year that Bill Cassidy of the US founded ANSMET, and the annual search expedition has continued every year (save for one) to the present.

20700 Total number of meteorites collected by ANSMET to the present. This number is not corrected for paired specimens, i.e., those meteorites which are chemically indistinguishable from one another and thus presumably came from a larger parent meteorite that broke into pieces after entering Earth’s atmosphere.

331 Number of meteorites collected by the team this year. The most meteorites collected by ANSMET in one season is about 1200.

11,000 to 1,000,000 Terrestrial ages in years of meteorites from the Allan Hills in Antarctica. The terrestrial age of a meteorite begins when the meteorite enters Earth’s atmosphere and subsequently lands on Earth. Some Antarctic specimens have terrestrial ages as old as 5 million years!

44X How much longer meteorites from the Allan Hills in Antarctica last on Earth as compared with meteorites from the western US. It’s true that Antarctic meteorites are preserved in the ice and protected from the ravages of weathering that goes on in more temperate climates.

18000 Pounds of gear this year’s team took into the field. This includes snowmobiles, fuel, food, sleep tents, science tent, poo tent, personal gear, flags, science gear, collection materials, etc., a lot of stuff!

11/13 Number of days spent working versus total days available for work in the field this year. That’s pretty good since ANSMET regularly has seasons where 50% of possible work days are lost due to inclement weather, i.e., high winds, poor contrast/visibility, blowing snow, or fresh snow covering blue ice areas where meteorites are.

1 Pounds of butter per tent (two people) per week; this is the recommended amount to be consumed in the field by ANSMET personnel. We fry everything in butter!

-1 What score an ANSMET team member gets for mistakenly claiming a terrestrial rock is a meteorite. For example, Steve received a minus one from the rest of the team when he claimed that piece of shiny, tan, round till was a meteorite!

Ok, that’s about it for today- next up on our mission is packing up and pulling out!

See ya next year,

-posted by Jim (editing by rph)

An editorial note from Jani: All the girls of camp thank Manavi’s mother for her amazing steak vindaloo recipe – it was a hit!

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

Morgan takes a Snowmobile Selfie

Today was a highly productive day of meteorite hunting, and we’ve now found over 300 specimens! We collected several beautiful achondrites, one of which is particularly intriguing and has gotten all of the ANSMET team especially excited. We woke up this morning to 15-20mph wind blowing so much snow around as to make searching impossible so we couldn’t start hunting as early as we would have liked. Once the wind had calmed sufficiently, we set out to continue searching patches of the blue ice south of camp, near where we’ve found several meteorites. The overcast sky enabled us to see the meteorites particularly well on the ice because of the contrast it creates around them. Unfortunately, that overcast eventually deteriorated into a snow storm. We were all ecstatic about the stunning specimens we were finding so we fought it as long as we could until it became difficult to see and navigate through the sastrugi. During the snow storm, we saw a sun dog – a circular rainbow around the sun with points of relative intensity and part of another circular rainbow tangent to the complete one. This colorful spectacle is created by the refraction of sunlight in ice crystals and occurs in different forms depending on the angle of the sunlight relative to the Earth’s surface, the amount of snow in the air, the size of the ice crystals, as well as other factors.

Sundogs, the 22 deg. halo , the upper tangent arc and the parihelic circle all on display

I had high hopes for the depth of knowledge I would gain and the solidity of relationships I would form being part of the ANSMET team, and my experiences here have surpassed all of my expectations. It is truly an honor to be part of a team comprised of highly skilled scientists who apply their distinct knowledge to the study of meteorites. When I’m not hunting for meteorites here in Antarctica, I’m working towards a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California, San Diego. I study the oxygen isotopic composition of extraterrestrial samples – meteorites and lunar soils and rocks brought back on the Apollo missions – and I’m particularly interested in the composition of water in these samples. We know water is essential to life on Earth so characterizing water in our solar system is important if we’re to understand why life uniquely exists here. There’s a relative paucity of data about water in extraterrestrial samples because it exists in extremely low concentrations. I extract and characterize isotopic water with a higher precision than done before, but the scarcity of water means the sample size required is large, compared to other techniques. This requirement is what showed me, first hand, the importance of acquiring more extraterrestrial material for planetary scientists to study. At a fraction of the cost of a sample return mission, the ANSMET program is the fastest and cheapest way to acquire these crucial extraterrestrial samples. (A note to clarify: all researchers have equal opportunity to study specimens collected by ANSMET. After being curated, samples can be requested from JSC and having been a part of ANSMET gives no priority.) Several of the meteorite samples from which I’ve extracted and analyzed water were collected by ANSMET. I feel honored to be able to collect samples that will be studied one day and to help enable scientific research and progress in a way that past ANSMET teams have done for me and so many other scientists. It is for these reasons that I find myself writing this blog in a tent on top of a 10,000 year old sheet of ice in Antarctica. Also, going to work on a snowmobile is pretty great.

-posted by Morgan (edited by rph)

 

Note from editor;  that ice could easily be 10x or 100x as old as Morgan thinks…..

 

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

 

John “Johnny Alpine” Schutt examines a possible meteorite

Every night, Johnny reads to us from the journals of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, mainly from a book “Race for the South Pole” by Roland Huntford. We hear what each of these parties did on the same calendar date we are in. I’ve heard everyone remark at some point during the field season that this is our favorite part of the day, I think for the reason that we can sit and chat cozily together, but also for the way these readings make us feel more a part of this special place. Hearing about the experiences of these early explorers invokes two seemingly contrasting feelings, that there are many similarities to what they went through and what we are going through, and that we are worlds apart. We step outside our Scott tents, very similar in design to what the exploring parties used, and we are in the very landscape they describe. We see a flat, white plateau plunging between high peaks onto the glaciers below, under clear, sunny skies, in temps of about 0 to -10 F, and with brisk winds from the south. We understand the difficulties of navigating on slick ice or ragged sastrugi, and we know what it is like to be bound to our tents when the winds pick up or the snows fall. We are eating fairly similar foods, as Manavi mentioned a few days ago – lots of fat, protein and sugar (they ate this in something called “pemmican”, a hash of high-energy ingredients, sometimes not so tasty), because this is what our bodies require to stay warm and full of energy in this environment.

Miller Range Pemmican: Saute muesli in butter until just barely brown. Add finely chopped beef jerky, bacon, nuts, chocolate bars. Add thawed berries, dash of chili powder. Stir in bacon grease, butter (about 1/4 to 1/3 total volume). Mold into bars, put outside in your skidoo, keep it there. Eat when cold and/or hungry.

But as challenging as the field can be for us sometimes, we really can’t begin to understand what it was like for them. Our traverses across the landscape are on skidoo, while theirs was on ski or on foot, on average about 15 miles per day. Inside our Scott tents we have down sleeping bags and propane stoves, while their reindeer fur bags filled with ice each night and had to be thawed, if possible, on the sledges the next day. Sometimes they crawled into ice-filled bags at night, and had to warm their chilled toes on their neighbor’s chest. While our diet is similar to theirs in basic terms, we have at our fingertips a variety of the world’s best foods. We are probably eating three times as much as they did, and they were working much harder. It was definitely a race for them, not only to get there, but to then turn around and get back before running out of food and daylight.

We just read that one hundred and one years ago today, Scott found a snow cairn and flag of Amundsen’s, revealing that the Norwegian party had beat them to the South Pole. They were crushed. And the struggles of their return journey were just beginning. We feel humbled to have a small understanding of how these explorers earned their experience here. We also feel privileged to be here, in this remote and beautiful place, made accessible to us by airplanes and all the logistical support of the US Antarctic Program. And we are so glad to be able to sit at the feet of Johnny Schutt to learn about all things Antarctic. He has spent much of his life in the Antarctic or the Arctic, one of a special breed of modern explorer. There are few who have seen as much of this continent (or the peaks of many of the others), or spent as much time with their boots on the ground here as Johnny. He is a premier mountaineer and a geologist, with extensive knowledge of meteorites, perhaps because he has found more of them than anyone on Earth by many thousands. Johnny is truly unique. He works hard, through his readings and stories and time spent with us in the field, to infuse all of us with the forbidden nature, awe and wonder of this place. I think he succeeds every season.

-posted by Jani?   (edited by rph)

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

Quick note from Da Boss

I talked to the team last night via iridium phone.  Looks like they can get about 3-4 more days of searching in,  then they’ll start packing up for the homeward trip.  It takes the best part of two days each leg in perfect weather;  two days back to CTAM, a day of re-arranging cargo (turning 8 twin-otter loads into one or two LC-130 loads) then one or two days back to McMurdo.  With current schedules and excellent weather, the team should hit McMurdo about the 22nd;  but that’s not been how it works this season, so stay tuned.

They report a total of about 250 meteorites so far, and expect to have more than 300 when they’re done.   That’s lower than average for a season but given the difficulties in getting the full crew out there,  it’s a pretty good haul.

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

 

the team with the big iron meteorite

The universe abounds with innumerable “Saganesque” mysteries, billions and billions of unknowns with an even greater number of clues to stimulate the souls and minds of all humans. We, the members of ANSMET 2013-14, feel privileged beyond words to be at the cusp of investigation into some of these mysteries. Our wandering minds dance from crevasses to inanimate alien visitors and many subjects in between via a free-form group dialogue, but the solitary nature of skidoo riding allows for introspection and unbridled internal contemplation. The origins of the universe, our solar neighborhood and pre-solar conditions are but a few of the areas for which we hope to help supply evidence that leads science to new understandings, especially using the extraterrestrial material that we recover. We found a large iron meteorite yesterday that was especially exciting, not only because of its perfect condition, large size (maybe 9 pounds!) and awe-inspiring beauty, but because of the amazing information that it holds. “Irons” are remnants of solid space objects that were large enough to have undergone a molten or partially molten phase allowing for mineral differentiation to take place, where materials are stratified according to their densities, similar to the internal structure of Earth. There are perhaps as many as 100 different total compositions exhibited by all the iron meteorites of the world, based on the trace elements and ratios, which means they were once part of 100 separate solid planetary bodies traveling in space. These bodies no longer exist, since they were broken apart by collisions, and now the meteorites are all that remain of their existence for us to study.

Steve in Warrior II Pose, Jani in Slug Just There For Moral Support Pose

Pondering such amazing possibilities is balanced with more basic, although pleasing contemplations, like what to make for dinner, or how many layers of clothing will be needed for a cozy night’s sleep. There are so many decisions to make. When to break out clean socks and begin anew the rotation of changing damp socks for dry. I personally have different hats to wear at night depending on the temperature and wind speed – nothing is simple or easy. We also have a near daily ritual of ice-exercise or icercize, wherein the clothing worn increases the difficulty and the needed exertion beyond the zone of comfort into the range of self-inflicted torture. Have you ever attempted to do crunches wearing 4 layers of clothing as well as ski bibs and big red? How about pushups? The class has mastered side crunches, cobras, holllow holds, side planks, planks, bicycles, and glute bridges, to name a few. (The number of each exercise is based on the number of meteorites recovered that day, or multiples thereof.) This in no way creates any conflict of interest, as we want more punishment, and more punishment is delivered by finding more meteorites. [A side note from Jani - we so appreciate Steve leading us in our nightly icercizes! He is an awesome trainer, and we are staying fit and healthy.]

I heard the sound of ice cracking last night, a sound muted by snow, but a reminder that we are sleeping on hundreds of meters of ancient ice. All of us are well and totally focused on our mission, but we miss the family and friends who are sleeping on mattresses these nights. Today is field day 34 for 4 of us. What an adventure!

Best Regards to the world that experiences darkness.

-posted by Steve (edited by rph)

Posted by & filed under 2013/ 2014 Field Season.

 

Sample Return- Barb with a beautiful large meteorite, one of several unusually large individuals we found today – 13 meteorites but in mass it was a good haul!

When I describe to people how we search for meteorites out here – eight people on skidoos, looking with our eyes and collecting with our hands – a natural question that comes up is, why don’t we use robots for that? After all, we send some pretty sophisticated robots to do the work of humans in other inhospitable climates, like mines, ocean floors, and Mars. I’ve been giving this some thought this season. It turns out humans are actually pretty efficient at searching for meteorites.

One reason humans are better is that it’s difficult to come up with absolute criteria for positively identifying meteorites in the field. They typically have a fusion crust, except when it is weathered away. They are typically black, except when they are brown because the interior is exposed. They typically have a lustrous or iridescent appearance, except some don’t. They typically are neither squared off nor round, but some are. They typically contain metal, except the achondrites. And so on – you get the idea. Yet, ANSMET teams typically return only a few percent of “meteor-wrongs,” or terrestrial rocks that aren’t meteorites. This is because the human brain is really good at telling “same” from “different.” Once we each build a mental library of the kinds of terrestrial rocks that are out here, we are good at spotting things that are different, even if we have only a subconscious reason for spotting it rather than explicit decision rules.

Another reason humans are best is that meteorites in the wild aren’t big rocks sitting on a plain background. They are cupped in the ice, partially buried in snow, or behind terrestrial rocks in a moraine. We use our ability to look at different angles to tell shadows from rocks, to use the sun to see crystals glint, and our ability to pick up the rock and really look at it up close. This is an enormous advantage over rovers. I am a member of the Mars Exploration Rovers team (yes, Opportunity is still going strong at 10 years!) and we struggle every day with evaluating images of rocks from single vantage points or sun angles. I am fond of saying that a geologist gets an enormous amount of information from a rock simply by picking it up (density or heft), gripping it (is it coherent or crumbly), and turning it in the sunlight (does it have crystals and holes? what shape and size are the crystals?). As of yet, rovers can’t do this.

Even with all the logistical problems of getting a bunch of meatbags, all our food, and our fuel out here, we’re still a cost-efficient and effective “sample return” mission. We bring back about 1700x(!) as much material in a typical year as a robotic sample return mission could, for a fraction of the cost. Don’t misunderstand me – we need both humans and robots exploring the solar system together. But after 30 years of honing, ANSMET is optimized for grabbing these readily available, but remote, Antarctic samples right now.

 

-posted by…..  Barb

Note from editor (rph).  I get asked this informally dozens of times a year, and very seriously (by funding agencies) every year or so.   Barb’s hit the nail on the head here.   My shorter version of an answer is “intuition”.  The human eye-brain system has evolved over millions of years to be superb at taking a little bit of visual information and spinning it into a complete story-  is that waving stalk of grass over there a lion ready to eat me,  or did a bird just take off?   We’re good at looking at broad, ordinary scenes and immediately noticing what’s different (think “Where’s Waldo?”).   Robots are not good at this……   yet.       From an economics standpoint,   the upcoming Osiris REx mission barb mentions will recover about 60 grams from an asteroid.  that sample in front of her is at least 10x that;  one sample.  And the Osiris-REx budget would cover our costs for almost 1000 years (about 970 to be precise).   For what we do,  human searches win on the “science per dollar” and “science per minute” charts.