Hiking Other Planets and Heavenly Bodies

January 26, 2018

By Ernie and Lynn Pratt

Astronaut testing a sampling instrument in Sunset Crater, near Flagstaff, in 1964. The Astrogeology Center organized testing of various instruments for moon landings at Sunset Crater during the 1960s .Photo: Courtesy of USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Going on a Tracker hike as part of the Sedona Westerners hiking club is a little different than the normal hike through our red rock formations.  Tracker hikes focus on scientific or historical topics and are organized once a month on a Wednesday.  This Wednesday “hike” was even more exceptional, since we visited the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.

What is this Center you ask?  They officially describe this U.S. Government entity as follows: “The USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona has a rich history of participation in space exploration and planetary mapping, starting in 1963 when the Flagstaff Science Center was initially established to provide lunar geologic mapping and assist in training astronauts destined for the Moon.  Throughout the years, the program has participated in processing and analyzing data from numerous missions to planetary bodies in our solar system, assisting in finding potential landing sites for exploration vehicles, and mapping our neighbouring planets and their moons. The Center has approximately 80 scientists, programmers, technical specialists, cartographers, student interns, and administrators, plus several scientists emeritus.  The Astrogeology Science Center's mission includes producing planetary maps and cartographic products which reveal topography, geology, topology, image mosaics and more, all made available to the international scientific community and to the public as a national resource.”

Upon our arrival, we were met by David Portree, the Manager of the NASA/USGS Astrogeology Regional Planetary Information Facility.  David signed us in and gave us official badges, so that if we got lost, we could be effectively returned to our group.  Although the lobby is currently being renovated, there was enough of a display there to launch us forward, excited about what was to come.  He then propelled us around several corners, leading to a soft landing in a hallway of poster boards, which started at the sun, then scaled outwards across our solar system, ending at hapless Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. We learned which ones were large and small, which ones have atmospheres, which ones are rocky and metallic, which ones consist of mostly frozen volatiles, and finally learned about the gassy giants.  There were also a few moons in our path.  We saw meteorite impact features by the thousands, and canyons of great depth and length, dwarfing their earthly counterparts; we saw evidence of planetary water, especially on Mars.  We learned about the history of man’s exploration of these planets.

A point driven home to us was how much our understanding is improving through better photography and the inclusion of more complex instrumentation on our spacecraft over time.  Photographs of our moon and its surface are almost unbelievable.  The current geological map of Mars is a commendable piece of work and a testament to our experience, learning, and ability to project and assimilate ideas gathered through various means.  We have also gotten a much better understanding as we have learned to share ideas and data freely with all interested scientists worldwide.

Next, David took us to the archive room, which was a bit crowded with all the exhibits being sheltered there during the ongoing renovation. There he showed us maps of the moon, marked with the landing sites and the astronauts’ traverses.  Off to the side, there was a small conference room that contained detailed models of all the equipment that we have used in space, including rockets, satellites, and even recovery craft containing small astronauts. 

We exited the facility, happily back to earth.  Our host, David Portree, had most capably provided us with an excellent morning “hike” that extended beyond our world, opening us up to our solar system, which was a heavenly experience.

If you are interested in joining the club, please visit the Sedona Westerners website at www.sedonawesterners.org/membership.  You are invited to our next monthly meeting at 7 p.m., Thursday, February 8, at the Sedona Methodist Church, 110 Indian Cliffs Road.  Sedona Westerners, written this week by Ernie and Lynn Pratt, appears every Friday in the Sedona Red Rock News.


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