Jarntimarra Diary - Jennifer Laing


Coober Pedy, South Australia
Jennifer Laing

Not much sleep last night judging by the looks of most of the party. A combination of needing to get used to hard air mattresses, cold night air, snoring and too much chatting by James W and Jennifer. At least we were able to settle on a 6.30 am start, rather than Jason's 5.00 am horror

Graham and Guy assigned tasks to the group. Carol and Larry are to look at the analogue value of a site, Michael engineering factors (how machines will work in the environment), James W climate & spacesuit factors, James L flora and fauna (not prevalent on Mars!), Jon risks, Jennifer infrastructure and cultural aspects (i.e. do sites have a cultural association with Mars?), Vic geology, Guy co-ordinating data collection, Graham ownership and access.

We then drove out to the first analogue site we are looking at - the picturesquely named Island Lagoon, 30 minutes drive from Woomera township. It is a salt lake, fringed by rocky cliffs. Everyone scattered once the vehicles stopped on a ridge by the North Shore, busy filling in datasheets, and conferring with colleagues on attributes of the site. A nice sunny 22c, but with a cool breeze off the Lagoon. Sunscreen and hats are essential out here - as is the insect repellent. Mosquitos - the scurge of the analogue scientist . . . We stopped at 11.00 am for a quick radio interview with ABC from Adelaide (Jon handled this and spoke of the expedition and its aims) while the rest of the team examined an old coachhouse ruin, part of the coach track which ran across the country in days gone by.

Bruce then took us into the Nurrungar Deep Space Tracking Station - the 'golfball' which reminded some of us of the Disney Epcot Centre in Florida. Some climbed up to the antenna and 'dish' - a unique experience.

Vic made some wonderful sketches of the scenery over the course of the day, displaying artistic as well as scientific prowess.

Lunch in Woomera, and time for a quick look at the Heritage Centre, where artefacts included memorabilia such as thank you plaques from NASA for the contribution to the Mariner missions, and newspaper clippings about Woomera's missile history.

Afternoon drive up the Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy - and photo shoot at the Breakaways, where they have filmed movies like 'Red Planet' and 'Ground Zero'. Red earth and rocky outcrops devoid of vegetation give it an other-worldly air, and a group poses for photos in a backdrop oddly reminiscent of the 'Pathfinder' pictures. Not an easy climb to get there, but successfully (but not elegantly in one case) attempted by Guy, Graham, James W, James L, Jen, Michael & Jon. The results were worth it - from the Red Centre to the Red Planet in one click of the camera.

We will be looking at an analogue site in this area tomorrow morning, as it is now getting towards nightfall, despite an extra hour of light due to daylight saving. Find a camping ground in Coober Pedy - the exotically named Camel Caravan Park - and then we set up camp - thankfully quicker than the night before.

Someone (in a leadership position, who will remain anonymous at their request) wonders about the night-life in Coober Pedy (better than on Mars, so I guess it's all relative) as a team opens up laptops to enter data, download digital photos and post emails. Dinner over a screen. The tyranny of the Website . . .



Painted Desert, South Australia
Jennifer Laing


Once a jolly swagman, camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolabah tree ?
                     Waltzing Matilda (anon)

O.K. We didn't end up sleeping under a coolabah tree, but some of these trees were on show as we drove north from Coober Pedy, along the Oodnadatta Track.

Last night, we managed to get the email account to work, using the satellite phone, and posted the first diary notes to Sandy, our MSA Webmaster. Late night but was worth it to get the communications going.

Mild night for Central Australia - this time of year it is normally far hotter. It has made it more comfortable to work, and helped people go to sleep quicker at night. We are surprised, as delays in scheduling this expedition due to the need to raise funds were expected to result in the team working under far from optimum conditions.

Some of the people in our camping site asked about the decals on the four-wheel drive vehicles - a good chance to explain about our sponsor Starchaser and the objectives behind the expedition. People are generally fascinated when we explain the need for Mars analogue research and some heard Jon Clarke's radio interview yesterday during their drive up from Adelaide.

Our site evaluation today occurs in the Painted Desert, after a short stop in Coober Pedy for refuelling. People live in caves underground, to escape the generally searing temperatures - shades of a possible Mars colony? The town is surrounded by huge hills of tailings from opal mining - very futuristic looking. Several members of the team see kangaroos hopping in the distance, as the convoy drives past.

Quick radio interview with the ABC in Alice Springs - Larry carries this out on behalf of the group and discusses very eloquently the Devon Island Research Facility and the type of research he and his colleagues have carried out there. Many of the group have profited already from asking Carol and Larry questions about their work at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. We are lucky to have this resource at hand, especially when we are looking at the analogue value of the various sites. They know first hand what attributes have been most useful in carrying out research, based on their participation as members of crews on Devon Island.

The Painted Desert is an amazing site - ringed with mesas and containing little vegetation, despite the unusually heavy rains they have experienced in these parts in recent times. The reason for the name is obvious, with the landscape displaying the colours of the desert, with soft reds and greens striping the surface of features, evoking an artist's palette.

Getting there takes a bit of effort, with unsealed roads providing a bumpy ride. Vic and Jon explain the geological features, and point out the distinct levels of erosion and weathering, forming plateaus and gullies, as well as evidence of slope erosion. We drive on to a wonderful site, with mesas glowing red and orange in the strong Australian sun. The men clamber up the top of one mesa, like a trail of ants, making a great photo opportunity for Jen as they return. Discussion afterwards about what it would be like to climb to these type of heights on Mars, especially in a bulky pressured space-suit. James W has been doing research into mechanical counter-pressure suits (like an elasticised leotard exerting pressure on the body) and discusses the potential benefits of these suits for increasing dexterity and mobility.

Our campsite is not far from the Stuart Highway, but is removed from artificial light and nearby amenities, giving a sense that civilisation is far away. We finally get a campfire, and sit around over dinner, discussing the day's events, and trying to avoid the sneaky bites from roaming ants. Not easy to find a perfect place to pitch the tent, but somehow we all manage. After dinner, we gather and pool data collected from the site visit at the Painted Desert, typing on the laptops.

No opportunity for star-gazing using Jon's telescope, given the cloudy night and busy schedule. Tomorrow we head to Alice Springs - over the border to the Northern Territory. Australia's a big country, and some of us are discovering for the first time just how vast and empty it is. Like Mars really?