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Glaciers, Polar Bears, and the Midnight Sun!
by Paulo Younse
NASA JPL Engineer

Goddag from the Arctic Circle!

Hello everyone!  Hope all is well with you all!  This August I got the opportunity to participate in a scientific expedition to test our Cliffbot rover in Svalbard, a small set of islands up in the Arctic Circle, some 600 miles from the North Pole.  It was an amazing experience filled with hikes up steep volcanoes, helicopter flights over glaciers and deep fjords, and sightings of the mighty polar bear!  Here's a short briefing you might enjoy...

As I sat atop a rocky cliff face some 79-degrees north that midnight, I could see a peculiar sight- the sun gleaming bright in the north above distant glaciers, lighting up the deep fjords and casting an eerie red glow on the steep redbeds around me, giving a ghostly impression of the surface of Mars.  In front, the waters of Bockfjorn stood still as glass, perfectly mirroring a reflection of Sverrefjell, an ancient volcano, blackened with volcanic rock and scattered with glistening, green olivine xenoliths.  I could feel the quiet tickling of the frigid, dry air whistling against my face and the chilling isolation of this barren land, void of life with the frozen ground and harsh, dark winters making it near impossible for anything other than light mosses, lichen, and small flora to make a home here.

The arctic is an intriguing... and cold... place.  And in the 24-hour daylight, the sun just goes round and round the horizon.  You find it sometimes dizzying, sometimes confusing, but pretty soon you learn to sleep amidst the sunlight.  In fact, it had just occurred to me that I had not seen the stars in nearly two weeks!

For these last two weeks, I have been living onboard the Lance, sailing around Spitzbergen with the Cliffbot rover team from JPL consisting of myself (mechanical lead), Mike Garret (electrical lead), Ashley Stroupe (software lead), and Terry Huntsberger (PI).  We were brought here though AMASE (Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition), composed of 28 scientists, geologists, and engineers, set to investigate how life exists in harsh environments, study the mineralogy and chemistry of the rocks to look for evidence of life, and test instruments that we hope to someday send to Mars to search for life.  Our system, Cliffbot, consists of a small rover that can traverse cliff faces to help scientists image, sample, and deploy instruments on interesting features of these otherwise unreachable places.  We successfully deployed our system at three sites around the island, each in its own unique and breathtaking location, bringing back samples for scientific analysis.

Each day has been an adventure- living aboard a science vessel, waking up to pickled herring and Nutella crepes for breakfast at 6:30 in the morning, and taking zodiac and helicopter trips each day to the shore, followed by treacherous hikes hauling equipment up steep, scree-covered slopes to our test sites.  In between testing, we have hiked up volcanoes for spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks and glacier carved fjords, fetched icebergs by boat from the frigid watery edge of a calving glacier for the evening's gin and tonics, and sighted polar bears on the prowl along the waterline.  And though I'm further away from my sunny home of California than I ever thought possible, the amazing crew aboard the Lance has made this ship feel like home.

Hope everything is going fantastic with you back in your hometowns!  For all of you in warmer lands, bottle up some warm sunshine and wish on a few stars for me!  I miss you all!

Reindeer fur and polar bear hugs,

Your Arctic Explorer


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Last Updated:
26 August 2006

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