The Dry Valleys are used as a testing ground for many of NASA’s planned space projects. I had the pleasure of running into one such project named ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic ANtartic Explorer), earlier this month when I was out at one of our stream sites at Lake Bonney. One of the lead scientists explained to me that the permanently ice-covered lakes in the valleys were a prime test site for the robot’s upcoming future: ENDURANCE serves as a prototype of the device that will be sent to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is presumed to have vast oceans beneath an ice layer. Its goal is to search for life in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to humans.
The valleys are often stated to be Earth’s most analagous landscape to Mars. The last ice age on Mars lasted from roughly 2.1 million to 400,000 years ago and the glacial features of its landscape are similar to those found here. In particular, there are mounds that have formed in the valleys due to perennially frozen soils and a large amount of ice. They look just like ones found on Mars. When the explorers first arrived here they thought the area was completely devoid of life. It’s only years later that researchers have now found a rather abundant amount of it here – there are nematode worms in the soils, algae in the streams and lakes, and even bacteria living INSIDE porous rocks. The entire microbial ecosystem here revolves around the rather limited supply of water that is only occasionally available. The idea is that if the harsh geological features that sustain life in the valleys look similar to the ones on Mars we might not be alone in the universe.
Last weekend I went on a short jaunt up to an area called Andrew’s Ridge and ended up in a most otherworldly landscape. After a steep climb up a mountainside made completely of crumbling rock I reached the top, bleeding only slightly. The reason for this endeavor was that I heard that an area containing massive ventifacts was at the trail’s end. I was not to be disappointed.
Ventifacts are rocks that have been carved by the wind. Over thousands of years, stones are shaped into bizarre forms by the sand and grit carried by the strong winds that blow through the valleys. After years of sandblasting the once solid rocks end up in strange shapes resembling anything that the imagination can conjure up. Ventifacts need not be large – they can be smooth flat stones that fit easily into the palm of your hand, they can look as if they’ve had holes drilled in them, or they can be the size of a small trailer.
At the end of Andrew’s Ridge I ended up in a gravel basin with a dozen massive ventifacts scattered within it. Standing there in the bright red soils amongst boulders that dwarfed me, it was easy to forget where I was and remember why the valleys are truly not of this world.
What a strange place.