The first day of our adventure in the Mojave took us from the plains of the desert to the highest peaks of the sand dunes to the depths of the underground volcanic caves. Driving over the day before, we were greeted by Soda Lake, a lake that instead of water has a film of bicarbonate salt covering a bed of sulfuric mud. Following the path to our home for the week, we drove by a man-made pond with a fountain in the middle inhabited by an endangered species of fish called a Chub. The backdrop of our new home was the endless plains of the Mojave Desert.
The rise of the sun over the desert heralded the first day of our five day journey to find the key to the possibility of alien life. We piled into five cars and caravanned, leaving civilization behind us in our search for biological soil crusts, referred to as BSC, in the vast plains of the desert. Though its appearance resembles that of black, squishy mold; BSCs are a complex community of cyanobacteria, moss and lichen that represent how life can survive in extreme environments. The objective was to find a large enough population that would allow us to take samples without decimating the population since they take about fifty years to resurface. The samples were retrieved and will be analyzed in a lab in order to discover the mechanisms by which life can survive in such an extreme environment. Our next task was to find a section of desert that would allow us to take a sample of barren land and compare this to the life element found in the BSC samples that we collected.
We continued our journey through the desert to the seaming oasis of Kelso, a World War II boomtown, for lunch and stumbled upon a gem in the form of an educational video. We learned a lot about our next stop, the Cima Sand Dunes. These dunes were beautiful but deceitful. Despite their seemingly serene exterior they soon proved to be our greatest challenge. Our mission was to reach the highest point of the dunes in order to survey the landscape. After about an hour of treacherous trekking, we reached the base of the highest peak. We thought the most difficult part was over, but the adventure had just begun. As we started trudging up the steep hill, soon to be nicknamed "Mt. Doom", we discovered that the sandy texture of the soil made it difficult to progress...for every step we took up, we slid down 0.75 steps. Although the environment proved to be too extreme for some, the majority persevered. After a strenuous combination of hiking and crawling, we conquered Mt. Doom and in doing so superseded our own perceived mental and physical limitations. After we recovered, we embraced the view and enjoyed our feelings of accomplishment. In surveying the land, we noticed that there was a distinct border of plants and shrubs along the base of the dunes. On our climb down, we encountered individual blades of grass-like plants growing in the middle of the sand. The roots appeared to be endless so we hope to return in order to further investigate the mechanism of their survival.
Our expedition continued through a rocky road to the Lava Tubes. We observed gaps in the Earth formed by geologically 'young' (approximately 10,000-15,000 years old) magma. We then climbed down into the caves and observed the geological formation of the caves. It is possible that life could have existed at one point but due to constant human traffic, none can be observed currently.
Upon returning, we enjoyed a hot shower and a delicious and hearty meal followed by a very stimulating presentation and discussion about microbialites. Then it was straight to bed to prepare for the next day. Thus ended the first day of our adventures in the Mojave.
Cal Poly Pomona
Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.