March 14, 2009
Scientists Plan First-Ever Land Crossing Of Northwest Passage
Scientists preparing to explore Mars are also planning another trip: history's first-ever land vehicle drive through the notorious Northwest Passage, which they say will provide data about climate change and man's impact on other planets beyond Earth.
The experts will make their trip in a customized armored Humvee vehicle, which will provide data about the ice thickness in the waterway through Canada's high Arctic, according to Pascal Lee, the expedition's leader and chairman of Mars Institute.
The team also seeks to discover what happens to microbes left behind by humans as they explore remote areas, based on concerns from some scientists about the potential impact of such journeys in space.
"It's not just about protecting men from Mars. It's also about protecting Mars from men," Lee said in an interview with Reuters.
The Northwest Passage, long sought as a faster route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was first crossed by ship in 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. The journey took three years to complete.
Sir John Franklin made a failed attempt to traverse the passage in 1845, perishing along with his crew of 128 after becoming stuck in the ice.
If successful, the 1,000-mile journey would mark the first time a land vehicle traversed the passage, the researchers said during a news conference in Vancouver.
Environmentalists caution that global warming has been melting summer ice in the Northwest Passage, and that a channel was briefly opened for the first time in modern history in 2007 and 2008.
Scientists now use satellites to estimate the ice thickness, so the land journey will enhance the data they currently have and provide a base of information against which future changes can be assessed, Lee said.
The melting has ruined much of the older ice that would have been too jagged to traverse just years ago. However, if it continues for another decade it may not be thick enough to travel on at all.
"We're taking advantage of a window of opportunity," said Lee.
The scientists will be on the lookout for any areas too thin to cross, and will be accompanied by two snowmobiles should any emergency or accident occur.
The team is hoping to begin the journey, which is expected to take two to four weeks to complete, in early April, but could begin as late as mid-May if need be.
The Mars Institute already has a presence in the region, using a facility on Devon Island in Canada's high Arctic to test vehicles that could ultimately be used to explore the surface of Mars or the moon.
Image Credit: NASA
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