print this page

Media Advisory: NASA Scientists and Teachers to Study Mars in the Mojave Desert


Reporters and Editors, Please Note

Media Day - Wednesday, March 28

WHO: The Mojave Desert Expedition, part of NASA's Spaceward Bound project, is a partnership among the Desert Research Institute, NASA Ames Research Center and San Jose State University, with NASA scientists teaming with teachers from across the United States

WHAT: Study Mars in the Mojave Desert

WHERE: The California State University Desert Research Station at Zzyzx, Calif. The California State University, Desert Studies Center is located between Barstow and Las Vegas at Soda Springs in California (eight miles southwest of Baker). To reach the Center from Las Vegas, take I-15 south, and after the city of Baker, take the Zzyzx Road exit. Drive south on Zzyzx Road four miles to the Center. Zzyzx Road is unpaved for most of its length, but is graded and should be driven slowly.

Read more at:
Drive time from Las Vegas approx. 1 hour, 45 minutes, depending on traffic

WHEN: Sunday, March 25 through Friday, March 30

SCHEDULE (Visuals):
7:00-8:30 a.m. - Launch of hot air balloon with remote sensing equipment to detect subterranean caves and lava tubes (weather permitting)
9:00-10:00 a.m. - interviews with scientists and teachers
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. - tour of teachers and scientists working in field

BACKGROUND: A passionate teacher can make any subject come alive for students, and NASA is helping fuel that passion. On March 25-30, 2007, NASA's Spaceward Bound project at the agency's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., will take a team of NASA scientists and 40 teachers from throughout the country—including four from the Clark County School District—to study the unique geologic formations of California's Mojave Desert and the supremely adapted microbes that call it home. The Mojave's inhospitable, sun-scorched environment presents scientists with opportunities to study environments similar to what explorers will find on the moon and Mars. Leading the team is Chris McKay, an Ames planetary scientist with extensive experience in field work in extreme environments.

"We have been doing field expeditions to Mars-like environments for years," McKay said. "Now we're bringing along the teachers, so they can see and participate in the exploration of these extreme environments. The teachers become part of the research team."

McKay will be joined by a team of astrobiologists from around the world, among them, Dr. Henry Sun from the Desert Research Institute. Astrobiologists look for life elsewhere in our solar system, especially on Mars. Sun has been honing his senses for life on Mars by studying microorganisms that live in the coldest, driest place on Earth: Dry Valleys, Antarctica.

“The Spaceward Bound program accomplishes a major educational objective, where the teachers will take home the excitement and experience of scientific explorations to their students, the next generation of explorers. It is also the ultimate example of team work in science. By having geologists, biologists, chemists and engineers working together on a common goal, we achieve enormous synergy and accelerate the discovery process,” Sun said.

Based out of the California State University Desert Research Station at Zzyzx, Calif., 60 miles east of Barstow, Calif., teachers and scientists will perform scientific fieldwork. The team will study the similarities of the desert's geologic formations to those of the moon and Mars, how microbes and chemical oxidants affect desert soil formation, and the desert's hypolithic algae, cyanobacteria and stromatolites. Teams also will use a hot air balloon to test new remote-sensing equipment to detect subterranean formations such as lava tubes, caves and paleolakes.

As part of the training for the expedition, teachers participated in four webcast training sessions that included presentations by the scientists explaining the research they will conduct during the expedition, training for field work in an extreme environment and discussions about how to bring their experiences into their classrooms.

During the expedition, teachers and students around the world can follow the action on the Spaceward Bound Web site via daily mission logs and image captures. On March 28, the team will hold two one-hour webcasts. The first webcast, in English, will begin at 9:00 a.m. PDT, followed by a Spanish webcast at 10:00 a.m. PDT.

"Beginning with the training webcasts and continuing through the expedition, Spaceward Bound: Mojave, enables teachers to immerse themselves in authentic moon and Mars analog field research," said Liza Coe, co-principal investigator for the Spaceward Bound project. "Teachers will very naturally inject these experiences into their teaching, which is critical because their students are the ones who will actually go to the moon and prepare for the first human missions to Mars.”

The Education Division at Ames developed the Spaceward Bound: Mojave educational program in partnership with the Desert Research Institute, Las Vegas, Nev., and San Jose State University, Calif., to train the next generation of space explorers. Previous Spaceward Bound expeditions include the exploration of the Mars-like soils in the Atacama desert in northern Chile and two week-long, immersive, full-scale simulations of living and working on the moon and Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert.

The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, Washington, funds the Spaceward Bound project, which continues the agency's tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. The project is tied directly to the agency's major education goal of engaging Americans in NASA's mission. NASA is committed to building strategic partnerships and linkages between formal and informal education providers of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as STEM). Through hands-on, interactive educational activities, NASA is engaging students, educators, families, the general public, and all agency stakeholders to increase Americans' science and technology literacy.

For more information about the NASA Spaceward Bound Project, visit:

For more information about the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, visit:

ABOUT DRI: A nonprofit, statewide division of the Nevada System of Higher Education, or NSHE, DRI pursues a full-time program of basic and applied environmental research on a local, national, and international scale. More than 500 full- and part-time scientists, technicians, and support staff conduct more than 300 research projects at DRI annually. DRI generates $50 million in total revenue consisting predominately of competitively won research contracts and grants. The State of Nevada provides critical funding in support of DRI's administration, operations, and maintenance through the NSHE education budget. While DRI’s portion of the NSHE budget is approximately one percent, the institute leverages these funds to enhance its competitiveness.