Wednesday, August 4, 2010

ISAS Day 4: Last Day at Ames

The students were well rested as they emerged from their hotel rooms this morning. Breakfast was a quick affair of hard boiled eggs, muffins, and assorted fruits. They huddle all around one another talking excitedly about what else they might see today. Gulping down their remaining food they twitch their feet impatiently as the mentors make some last minute preparations. With a nod from Dave Marquart, the students immediatley push out the door and start walking towards Ames. Within seconds, the hotel lobby is cleared. It appears that they wanted to get going this morning.

Students getting ready to leave in the morning
The morning sky is overcast with a nearly impenetrable marine layer casting a somber shade upon the surroundings of Ames Research Center. However, the thick blanket of clouds has no effect on the students as they stride confidently down the sidewalks wearing their bright ISAS t-shirts. The first event for the morning was a lecture by Dr. Chris McKay and was about life on Mars. He broke the lecture into three main points. The first was that life may be found on Mars and it is possibly more related to us than we think. The second point was that life should be taken to Mars in order to see how well it can survive. And the last point was that Mars should be warmed in order to support life. The students were receptive towards the new information and were curious about much of the data. The students asked many questions and probably would have enjoyed hearing more, but time had run out and there were other things to explore.

Students listening to Dr. Chris McKay
For the next events, the students once again broke up into two separate groups. As though it had become second nature the students quickly split themselves and began walking towards the respective events. Ken Smith, an Ames scientist, took one of the groups to the Mars wind tunnel where he was helping with research involving the increased understanding of Mars' surface. The wind tunnel was located in a giant pressurized building originally intended for the testing of certain rocket engines. The builiding was unnaturally high for its present purpose and the yawning mouth that hung above the students was enough to throw anyone's senses into a whirlwind. The purpose of the study was to test how a pressurized atmosphere similar to Mars would effect objects in the wind tunnel and atmospheric effects upon the movement of sand. Usually, however, for these kinds of tests the room is at the same atmospheric pressure as Mars which could prove fatal to anyone trapped inside the building. Of course though, the building remained at a safe atmosphere while the students were touring inside of it. In fact, to demonstrate how the wind tunnel functioned, Kevin Smith placed some walnut dust into the wind tunnel and turned it on. As the turbines groaned into motion the student's compressed closer to the small viewing area. As the air increased velocity, the dust was thrown into a frenzy. When the machine had to be powered down, it moaned as the gears ground to a hault. Conincidently, the moaning from the machine was drowned out by the disappointed moans of the students who had wanted to see more. 

Brushing dust off of one another, the students emerged from the building and swapped with the other group. In this next presentation, the students were led through the astrobiology and astrochemistry labs. Here the students had the opportunity for one-on-one question and answer sessions as the scientists led them through all of the present experiements. At one point, while stressing the importance of infared waves in astrochemistry, the students were given the opportunity to see one another through an infared scope. 

Students asking scientists questions in the astrobiology lab
At Ames there is a weekly tradition where every Wedensday in the cafeteria is known as Burrito Wedensday. So, because it was all part of the Ames experience, most of the students loaded their plates with monstrous burritos and tackled them with a fork and knife. When lunch ended, which it did quite quickly because all of the students were ravenously hungry, the students went and listened to an in depth presentation on the importance of Ames throughout the years. 

Students posing for a group shot

Only two more presentations were left before the students would say their temporary goodbyes to Ames. As before, the students broke up into two groups. The groups were going to be toured around the VMS (Vertical Motion Simulator) and the Vertical Gun. Yesterday, the students had seen two simulators that only had three degrees of motion. However, the VMS is a simulator with an astounding six degrees of motion. This means that the simualator is housed inside a large structure meant to give it a full range of motion. The six degress available to the simulator are: yaw, pitch, roll, up and down motion, side to side motion, and frontwards and backwards motion. These six different movements reproduce a nearly lifelike simulation experience. When the students all piled into the observation deck to watch the simulator in action, they were all startled as all of a sudden a large object fell at a sickening speed. The VMS was being tested for some astronauts who were arriving later in the week and it appeared that those inside controlling it were having a terrific time. The students were immediatley envious. 

The vertical gun was an interesting contraption. It was built back in the '60s and is still in use today. It's purpose is to shoot objects down a high velocity tube that would simulate an asteroid impacting a body. Using insanely high speed cameras, the scientists were able to document and understand how asteroids impact planets or other bodies. Available to the students was some data of previous firings. The students all laughed in amazement as the high resolution cameras showed the slow and tracable fractures of a granite block . Also the complete disintegration of the object fired was a surprising feature that none of the students had ever witnessed before. 

With a fond farewell and many promises to return soon, the students parted with Ames by scavenging the gift shop at the Visitor's Center for trinkets and souvenirs. Once again, the shuttles carried the students safely to their final destination in California; the San Jose Airport. While awaiting for the plane to arrive and take them all home, many of the students partook in large and heated card games. Many blushed with embarrassment as they yelled in frustration across the terminal at their misfortunes with the cards. 

As the students boarded the airplane it appeared that the urgings of the mentors to pack light were taken too literally. One of the flight attendants soon announced that the plane was actually underweight in the cargo hold and the students needed to put their bags down below in order to keep the plane balanced. As soon as the plane was weighted correctly, we took off and with a final view of Hangar One in the distance, turned away from the setting sun and headed home. Looking out the window, the students  could view acres and acres of wind turbines lazily rotating as the sun bathed their blades in bright orange. Seeing these spectacular innovations of the present, it can only be logical that the innovations of the future are in these student's hands.

These blogs will continue to be posted every evening.  A more "live" version of the days' events are being uploaded onto the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars' facebook page. 

--Andrew Schrader and Jaime Guevara--

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