since moved to the National University of Singapore.">

Spaceward Bound Captain’s Log

By Steve Pointing 21/01/2015


Captain’s Log: Day 1 (Friday)
Blast Off !
After starting the day with a really great early morning media interview with the charismatic Aziz Al-Sa’Afin from TV3 in Auckland, the NASA, Australian and Kiwi participants headed down to Rotorua where we received a very warm welcome Whakatau by the elders of Te Takenga Marae, Te Arawa in Mourea (just outside Rotorua).  The location could not have been more beautiful, the Marae is nestled between Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti, and we have established our lakeside ‘base camp’ at the Marae.  Almost immediately the drone and rover teams assembled their remote operated vehicles and this attracted a huge amount of attention from locals young and old alike, indeed large audiences have been a feature throughout all our activities here this week! The rover was designed and built by Steve Hobbs (Canberra) and features a multispectral camera that can remotely identify photosynthetic microbes.  The drone is piloted by Matt Reyes (NASA) and has a high-definition camera that we will use to illustrate how remote imagery is important to exploration of extreme environments.
A major activity for Friday was setting up the science bays, each an activity area themed to address one of our research goals this week.  The aim is to use astrobiology as a scientific thread to stimulate new thinking and ideas about science education, and a KPI of our expedition is to produce a suite of suggested astrobiology-focused activities that can be incorporated into and enrich NZ and other secondary school curricula. The themes are:
Planetary science– astronomy and the search for habitable planets in other solar systems.
Planetary protection– planning for safe handling of samples returned from other planets, and safe activity by humans on other planets.
Extreme life – the limits for life and the value of studying microbial ‘extremophiles’ as an analogue for early life on Earth and extra-terrestrial life.
Robotics and rockets– the technology that is required to meet astrobiology objectives, specifically for near-term goals with unmanned rovers.
Art and culture – the aesthetic and cultural significance of astrobiology, including the Maori creation story, which is a captivating legend that very closely mirrors the concepts of the scientific ‘big bang’ view on how the universe began.
Planning to live on other planets – the physiological, logistical, psychological and philosophical aspects relating to human colonisation of other worlds.
Captain’s Log: Day 2 (Saturday)
Early Earth in Rotorua
Saturday saw the start of our science field activities.  Over 50 participants visited the Waimangu geothermal valley, a relatively new geothermal feature comprising a rift valley with thermal vents, lakes and terraces created by a violent eruption in 1886 that also claimed many lives locally.  Here Kathy Campbell led a fascinating narrated walk through the valley, where standout features were the extensive thermophilic cyanobacterial mats and stromatolites growing at temperatures of approximately 50-70oC.  I really enjoyed seeing thermophilic microbial mats again, and even the smell of hydrogen sulphide gas (think rotten eggs) was a pleasant reminiscence, as I have in the past done a fair amount of research on the biology of hot springs in Tibet, Thailand and the Philippines.  This meant I was able to share my knowledge of these systems with the teachers and high school students in the group.
In the evening we had the first of our expert science lectures.  Starting us off was Kathy Campbell from the University of Auckland, who gave a talk about primitive microbial life in geothermal springs and how it can be preserved in sinter deposits as “biosignatures”.  It is widely thought that life on Earth originated in surface geothermal areas like Waimangu or in deep sea hydrothermal vents.  Multiple threads of evidence support this: The most ancient evolutionary lineages alive on Earth today are thermophiles – organisms that thrive at high temperatures.  Also geothermal activity creates aqueous chemistry that favours relatively simple metabolism (such as oxidation of inorganic compounds to obtain energy).  We also know that these environments were widespread on an early earth.  Kathy’s research to identify “biosignatures” of such life in sinter (geothermally precipitated silica) is therefore important to the quest to find our earliest ancestor!
Captain’s Log: Day 3 (Sunday)
Life on Mars and Mordor
Today one group departed early to hike the Tongariro Crossing, whilst I led a team to Sulphur Point in Rotorua to hold a Public Open Day.  We arrived at the ‘moonscape’ in the heart of Rotorua at 9:30am and began to unpack our rovers, drones and robots – and almost immediately began to attract a crowd.  In less than an hour we had several hundred members of the public join us to learn about astrobiology and why the unique and beautiful city of Rotoura was our choice for showcasing these space exploration vehicles.  My informal talks on astrobiology were popular with young and old alike, and the interactive displays of our Mars rover (Steve Hobbs), flying drone (Matt Reyes), bottle rockets (Ken Silburn, Sydney) and manipulator robots (Alf Eldridge, Wellington) were hugely popular and very evocative when seeing them drive around the ‘alien’ landscape.  We let visitors take a ‘hands on’ approach and many children were thrilled to be able to take control of our robots and try to ‘capture’ an alien stuffed toy using their ‘bots.  It was very pleasing to also receive keen interest from the Daily Post on this great outreach story.
I spent a very interesting afternoon exploring with participants how Maori and other cultures interpret the stories surrounding creation.  I feel very strongly that astrobiology is an area where science and faith can come together and jointly provide an enriched learning experience where science can meet faith, philosophy and culture without being confrontational.
This was be followed by a group viewing of the night sky with Julian Thompson, Ken Stilburn and Matt Reyes.  This was particularly exciting because the International Space Station passed over the Marae just after 9pm and we also identified several satellites passing overhead – which helped many people connect with our space theme for this expedition.  Unfortunately a group of participants also connected very personally with the microbiology theme of astrobiology, due to a particularly nasty outbreak of a bug that struck down several people including me.

Captain’s Log: Day 4 (Monday)
Sampling extreme life
Today is field-sampling day in Paraki thermal streams.  Some field participants also became thermophiles themselves, taking advantage of the comfortably warm waters in Kerosene Creek to soothe away the aches and pains of our previous days hiking.  As the resident microbiologist I prepared microscope slides and illustrate photosynthetic and photo-protective pigments, and give a very general guide to identifying major groups of thermophiles in the field.  We also had some fun with the children around the Marae, showing them what leaves and insects and other things around them look like when magnified! 
In the evening we welcomed Mark Gee, Astro-photographer of the Year, to the Marae where he gave a presentation with breathtaking pictures.  The clouds interfered rather with our night sky observations later, but some great insights form all of the astronomy crew helped make this fun. 
A particular highlight of our evenings this week has been the “Mobile Planetarium” – an amazing inflatable dome with a 3-D projection system, where Ron Fisher (Cosmodome) has given beautifully narrated animations of the southern night sky, and breathtaking videos of space exploration.
Captain’s Log: Day 5 (Tuesday)
Media Day
This morning we opened the airlock to reporters from several television, radio and print media representatives.  The Spaceward Bound team put on a number of displays and a lively three hours of reporting left us all feeling that we have really put astrobiology and Spaceward Bound firmly on the Aotearoa map. Some links below:
This afternoon I gave a science talk on the relevance of Antarctica’s icy deserts as an analogue for life on Mars (Steve Pointing, AUT).  This is an interesting contrast to Kathy’s talk on thermophiles and the origin of life in hot environments.  Here I will focus on how extant or recent life might have survived on Mars by colonising favourable subsurface environments beneath rocks, and give examples of my recent research collaboration with NASA on evaluating drill technology for recovering biosignatures.
Spaceward Bound goes on for a further day with touristic activities for our overseas guests, but unfortunately tonight I have to return to my ‘day job’ in Auckland.  A huge thank you to all my fellow participants for making this a most enjoyable week and especially to Haritina Mogosanu whose vision and determination made sure this whole event came together so well.  I am sure this Spaceward Bound event will have lasting impact on the science team, teachers, students and our wonderful hosts at the Marae.  I have really enjoyed my outreach and media role for this event, and I think that we have laid some solid foundations to build further interest in astrobiology in New Zealand during the years ahead, and ultimately for development of curriculum material to enrich the NCEA curriculum in New Zealand.

Kirk out (beep).