Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mars Analog Research Leads to Dinosaur Fossil Find

Dr. R.Zubrin with dinosaur fossil during EVA near MDRS in 2002. Credit: Mars Society

The Mars Society learned last week that the dinosaur fossil discovery made by the organization in Lith Canyon during Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) Crew 1 in 2002 and amplified by further data gathered from subsequent crews by MDRS Director Shannon Rupert, has, upon investigation by professional paleontologists, now led to one of the largest dinosaur fossil finds in history. Huge quantities of fossils of Jurassic dinosaurs, including Apatosaurus (aka Brontosaurus), Diplodocus, Allosaurus and many other species have been unearthed in the area. According to Dr. Scott Williams of the Burpee Museum of Natural History, who is leading the dig, the find is "as significant as Dinosaur National Monument."

The initial discovery was made on February 9, 2002, by an EVA team consisting of Dr. Robert Zubrin, Jennifer Heldmann, Heather Chluda and Steve McDaniel on the MDRS Crew 1’s first long distance motorized exploratory excursion. The team had traveled several kilometers north of the MDRS hab, making a number of stops. Dr. Zubrin’s log book for the day, published that same evening, says what happened next.

“We continued north another 2.5 kilometers and came to a hill too steep for the ATVs. I decided to climb it, though, to get the view of the region to the west. We hiked up and were rewarded not merely with an impressive view, but with the sight of a fair-sized canyon and a passable ATV route to get there.

So to the canyon we went. This was a wonderful place, with a steep little gorge that exposed millions of years of banded sediments to easy view. I climbed around the rim and had aEureka moment when I found some bits of petrified wood. These however were made irrelevant within minutes by Heather who found a small mountain made of the stuff – in several varieties no less. But then I found something which really made my day – a bone of stone. It’s the size of a coffee mug, and the indentation for the joint is clearly visible. The material I found it in was Jurassic, so my guess is that it’s a dinosaur.”

The crew also discovered endolithic microorganisms in the canyon and therefore named it “Lith Canyon.”

Under the leadership of Ms. Rupert, the MDRS Remote Science team has been recording GPS coordinates of additional fossil finds by MDRS crews on subsequent EVAs and forwarding them to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for distribution to the scientific community for several years. Starting in the fall, this activity will become more systematic, with direct coordination of MDRS field exploration and reportage with Dr. Williams and his group to insure proper follow up of all discoveries.

While we do not expect to find dinosaur fossils on Mars, the search for fossils left behind by simpler organisms, such as stromatolites, which may have evolved and lived on the surface during the Red Planet’s early warm and wet history, will be a critical part of the science program of the first human missions to Mars. Thus the MDRS field paleontological exploration effort will serve both as a direct analog to learn how to explore on Mars, while playing a significant role in furthering important scientific research on Earth.

Commenting on the development, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said; “This discovery really shows how important it is to send human explorers to Mars. We traveled out 5 kilometers that day, a distance that it took the MER rovers several years to traverse, climbed a hill that no rover could climb to obtain a view that allowed us to discover the canyon, then made a spontaneous un-rover-committee-like decision to go into the canyon, then climbed down a descent into it that no rover could manage, and then explored the canyon, using perceptive and intuitive abilities natural to humans but far beyond the capacities of any robotic rover to discover both endoliths and dinosaur fossils. You could have landed scores of rovers in that desert and never made either of those discoveries. Furthermore, now that professional paleontologists are on the scene, those finds are being followed up in a way that is light years beyond the capabilities tele-operated rovers.

“It was great for me to revisit Lith Canyon, seeing the wild scene of our first exploration now being worked over by a paleontological camp. In 20 or 30 years, it will probably look like Dinosaur National Monument, complete with visitor center, souvenir shop, and cafeteria. I can imagine the same succession occurring on Mars. First an astronaut on an early expedition will make and mark a suspected find. Then teams of professional paleontologists and geologists from a Mars base established nearby will come and work the site over, making dramatic discoveries that will change our understanding of the potential prevalence and diversity of life in the universe. Then, the day will come when the place is turned into an exhibit, and Martian kids from New Plymouth will come out on classroom field trips to gawk at the displays in the visitor center of Stromatolite National Park, while some of the teenagers slink off to make out in the broom closet. Life goes on.

“Bully for Brontosaurus!”


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