Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Arizona Adventure

John Gemperline

Our trip out to Arizona kicked off early in the morning with a great trumpeting fanfare (courtesy of Kyle).  After landing in Phoenix, we hopped over to Arizona State University for a tour of the Mars Spaceflight Facility by the group leaders that we just rendezvoused with.  Being back at ASU brought up a lot of nostalgia from my experience with the Mars Student Imaging project during middle school.  I also enjoyed touring one of the schools I am interested in attending for graduate studies.  The rest of the day consisted mostly of driving up to Flagstaff, with two brief stops to admire Sedona and some well-preserved cross bedding on the side of the highway.  The day concluded with a marvelous dinner on the San Francisco Peaks, which are the remains of an old stratovolcano that now overlooks Flagstaff.
On the second day we visited the Flagstaff Volcanic field, starting with SP Crater.  Seeing a cinder cone volcano in person was like stepping into a text book from one of my geology classes.  I really enjoyed being able to hike along the old lava flows that oozed out of the base of the volcano as well.  Though it was a short distance, going up the cinder cone itself was one of the most strenuous hikes I have undertaken.  The view from the top was superb, and observing all the lava bombs while sliding around on the slopes was an unforgettable experience.  The second volcano we visited, Colton Crater, offered a great opportunity to see welded tuff, olivine, quartz, plagioclase phenocrysts, and other interesting volcanic features. 
Day three was our trip to Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest National Park, and the Painted Desert.  One of the projects I am working on at Goddard involves measuring and analyzing Martian craters.  Being able to visit a well preserved crater on Earth helped me to better understand their morphology in the context of what I’m working on.  As my mentor, Dr. Jim Rice has said, “You can look at these features all you want on a computer screen, but there’s no comparison to going out in the field and being able to study them first hand.”  The Painted Desert also provided an excellent example of badlands terrain similar to what we might find on Mars, with canyons, ravines, and gullies eroded in arid environments.  The final event for the day was a trip to the Lowell Observatory, where we were able to look at an open star cluster and Saturn through the telescope.
The fourth day was spent solely at the Grand Canyon, but really a week, even a month, wouldn’t be enough time to explore everything there.  It was my third time visiting and it was no less majestic or enjoyable.  This was my first time visiting with any significant understanding of the geologic setting around me.  Looking at the canyon walls during our hike down the Bright Angel Trail was like flipping through the pages of a text book.  We found more cross bedding on a grand scale, and beheld transgressive and regressive sequences recording the advance and retreat of oceans during the Paleozoic.  Dr. Jim Rice, put it this way, “Every step you take down the trail is equivalent to twenty or thirty thousand years in Earth history.”  My only regret is that we were only able to hike three miles down the Canyon.  Even then we were nowhere near the rim of the inner gorge.

I’ve always loved traveling out west, and this trip was no different.  There are so many interesting things to see purely from a geologic perspective and so many opportunities to learn from the landscapes and rocks around you.  From a planetary science perspective, Arizona is a fantastic place to study and compare to the other terrestrial worlds in our solar system.

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