Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Pseudo Geologist Among the Rocks at Barringer Meteor Crater, Arizona

Around 50,000 years ago, a nickle-iron meteorite approximately 50 meters long hit the Earth in what is now Arizona, creating what is known as Meter Crater or the Barringer Crater. Four and a half years ago, I got to explore it. I was one of 16 graduate students who participated in the Lunar and Planetary Institute's Meteor Crater Field Camp in September 2011. It was quite an experience!

On the rim of Meteor Crater - September 2011

I'll start out by admitting that I was not exactly a happy camper during the eight day field camp because I am not a camper at all. I enjoy comfortable beds, temperature controlled rooms, clean bathrooms, vehicles that can take me long distances, and other modern conveniences. To be fair, camping at Meteor Crater isn't fully camping. They had bathroom facilities with decent showers, electrical outlet ports outside, and wifi. I brought my laptop and connected to the internet every morning and evening. Even so, eight days is a long time for a non-camper to camp.

The Meteor Crater camp site - September 2011

I was also quite out-of-place with my peers. Although the program was open to geologists and planetary scientists, it heavily leaned toward geology. I had taken a graduate-level geology class and was studying lunar impact craters, but it was soon clear that I was the least knowledgeable about geology in the pack. Additionally, my fellow classmates seemed to love rocks and their excitement to stare endlessly at rocks was genuine. I think rocks are cool, but my interest in the minutia is short-lived. The program leader quickly identified me as a geologist fraud and took a disliking to me. We didn't see eye-to-eye on space policy, either. Despite my inadequacies, I learned quite a bit of geology from my peers and became the group's photographer with my DSLR.

Group at work - September 2011

Someone else took this one. I'm the short girl in purple - September 2011

The landscapes in the desert are gorgeous and plenty photogenic. We hiked around the crater rim, down to the center and back up again, around the crater ejecta blanket, and in an old quarry. Abandoned mining equipment and infrastructure littered the field like an archaeological site. Recent rains caused wildflowers to burst with color. And my team always seems to be posing in an action shot among the rocks. The sights were truly spectacular.

Wildflowers blooming - September 2011
Abandoned wheel - September 2011
Standing in the ruins with abandoned buildings yonder - September 2011

On the second full day, former astronaut Tom Jones joined us in our hike down the crater. I had met him once before and once since, and he always seems like such a cool guy. Apollo astronauts used to train for the lunar terrain in the crater, and NASA relics are still kept in the crater's museum, so the area has a history of astronaut activity. Tom gave us a presentation on potentially hazardous near Earth asteroids, a relevant subject in an area once hit by a near Earth asteroid.

Posing with astronaut Tom Jones - September 2011
Resting at the bottom of the crater - September 2011

If I wasn't a geologist before I arrived at the field camp, I certainly wasn't going to leave as one. Day after day, we undertook laborious tasks that I can't quite believe modern geologists still do. We counted pebbles by hand. We measured pebbles with rulers. We took location measurements of boulders with outdated handheld GPS receivers. We categorized everything we saw with our own eyes. It seemed to me that aerial remote sensing with good software could have accomplished most of what we did a lot more easily, but graduate students are cheap labor and we were out there for the experience.

Working among the rocks - September 2011

I do appreciate the experience and I'm glad to have participated in the program. Real science was done, and in a small way, I contributed. I'm a co-author on conference proceedings from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference: Extensional Faulting of the Overturned Coconino Ejecta Layer and Emplacement of Fallback Breccia at Barringer Meteorite Crater (aka Meteor Crater). But honestly, I'm more proud of my photography.

Self-portrait on the cliff - September 2011

Sunset at Meteor Crater - September 2011

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