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Scientist links research in Antarctica to search for life on Mars

Geoscientist Dickson reports on Antarctic studies related to possibility of water on Mars

The warm atmosphere of Flatbread Company  provided a sharp contrast to Jay Dickson’s compelling description of his research experiences in Antarctica. It was hard to imagine holding a frozen cylinder of refried beans over a hot saucepan with the aroma of pizza wafting through the restaurant in which he was speaking.

Dickson, a science data analyst in the department of Geological Sciences, presented his lecture entitled “Freeze Frame: Time-lapse Photography in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica,” to over 80 faculty members, students and other attendees as part of Science Underground, an initiative sponsored by the Science Center, the Triple Helix and the scientific research honors society.

Jessica Brodsky ’14, one of the coordinators for the event and a former Herald science staff writer, said Dickson’s presentation brought Antarctica — a continent that is often difficult to conceptualize — to life. “The speakers broadened the realm of what is possible,” she said.

Dickson attempted to translate the harsh, Antarctic conditions for audience members by asking them to visualize stepping off a plane to both a “spectacular view” and 6 to 10 feet deep ice. McMurdo Station, where Dickson and his team train before research projects, “feels like a grimy little mining town mixed with a college town.”

Training, which lasts approximately one week, is an integral part of research in Antarctica, Dickson explained. Once the researchers move out to McMurdo Dry Valleys, where Dickson’s project is based, “half of (their) time is spent just surviving,” he said. For water, snow is melted in pots, and all food provisions eventually freeze, he added.

Dickson has visited Antarctica multiple times to study the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are part of the 2 percent of Antarctica’s surface not covered with ice, he said.

Given the harsh conditions, researchers need very compelling reasons to venture so far south, said James Head, professor of Geological Sciences, in his introduction of Dickson’s lecture. Landing in the valley “looks like a rover landing on Mars,” Dickson said. In fact, the valleys’ similarities to Mars is precisely why Dickson goes there. Parts of the valleys are so dry that snow instantly turns to vapor, Dickson said, skipping the liquid water phase.

Dickson’s research specifically explores water. Photos from Mars show gullies that behave similarly to how water behaves on Earth, he said, and if these gullies are indeed made of water, “there’s been more water on the surface of Mars recently … than we thought.”

To study water movement, Dickson sets up time-lapse cameras, which take photos at five minute intervals, and assembles the shots into short movies. Equipment also records data at regular intervals, and Dickson said he compares the data against the photos during analysis.

Using these techniques, Dickson’s team has studied Don Juan Pond, the saltiest body of water on Earth. Scientists have long wondered about where the shallow pond receives its water.

In a series of photos Dickson observed “water tracks,” a system of water percolating through the soil that is located near the pond. The tracks darken when water is present, and photos showed that this darkening occurs almost instantly, rather than in a gradual river-like movement.

The darkening of the water tracks corresponds with a peak in humidity, suggesting  the salt in the soil absorbs the water in the air. Based on this logic, the atmosphere may actually be the source of Don Juan Pond’s saline water, Dickson said.

These results imply it might be possible that liquid water on the surface of Mars comes from the atmosphere, Dickson said. The dried-up salt lakes on the planet’s surface could have stories similar to those explaining Don Juan Pond, he added.



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