Category: earth

All About That (Nucleic) Base

Studying DNA Aboard the International Space Station

What do astronauts, microbes and plants all have in common? Each relies on DNA – essentially a computer code for living things – to grow and thrive. The microscopic size of DNA, however, can create some big challenges for studying it aboard the International Space Station.

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The real question about DNA in space:
but why, tho?

Studying DNA in space could lead to a better understanding of
microgravity’s impact on living organisms and could also offer ways to identify
unknown microbes in spacecraft, humans and the deep space locations we hope to
visit one day.

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Most Earth-based
molecular research equipment is large and requires significant amounts of power
to run. Those are two characteristics that can be difficult to support aboard
the station, so previous research samples requiring DNA amplification and sequencing had to be stored in space until they
could be sent back to Earth aboard a cargo spacecraft, adding to the time
required to get results.

Fun science pro tip:
amplification means to make lots and lots of copies of a specific section of
DNA.

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However, all of
that has changed in a few short years as we’ve worked to find new solutions
for rapid in-flight molecular testing aboard the space station.

“We need[ed] to
get machines to be compact, portable, robust, and independent of much power
generation to allow for more agile testing in space,” NASA astronaut and molecular biologist Kate
Rubins said in a 2016 downlink with the National Institutes of Health.

The result? An advanced
suite of tabletop and palm-sized tools including MinION, miniPCR, and Wet-Lab-2, and more tools and processes on the
horizon.

The timeline:

Space-based DNA
testing took off in 2016 with the Biomolecule Sequencer.

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Comprised of
the MinION sequencer and a Surface Pro 3 tablet for analysis, the
tool was used to sequence DNA in space for the first time with Rubins at the helm.

In 2017, that tool was used again for Genes in Space-3, as NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson
collected and tested samples of microbial growth from around the station.

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Alongside MinION,
astronauts also tested miniPCR, a thermal cycler used to perform the polymerase
chain reaction that had been downsized to fit workbenches aboard the space
station. Together these platforms provided the identification of unknown
station microbes for the first time EVER from space.

This year, those testing capabilities translated
into an even stronger portfolio of DNA-focused research for the orbiting
laboratory’s fast-paced science schedule. For example, miniPCR is being used to
test weakened immune systems and DNA alterations as part of a student-designed
investigation known as Genes in Space-5.

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The study hopes
to reveal more about astronaut health and potential stress-related changes to
DNA created by spaceflight. Additionally, WetLab-2 facility is a suite of tools aboard the station
designed to process biological samples for real-time gene expression analysis.

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More tools for filling out the complete
molecular studies opportunities on the orbiting laboratory are heading to space
soon.

“The mini
revolution has begun,” said Sarah Wallace, our principal investigator for
the upcoming Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) investigation. “These are very small, efficient tools. We
have a nicely equipped molecular lab on station and devices ideally sized for
spaceflight.”

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BEST is
scheduled to launch to the station later this spring and will compare
swab-to-sequencer testing of unknown microbes aboard the space station against current
culture-based methods.

Fast, reliable
sequencing and identification processes could keep explorers safer on missions
into deep space. On Earth, these technologies may make genetic research more
accessible, affordable and mobile.

To learn more
about the science happening aboard the space station, follow @ISS_Research for daily updates. For opportunities to
see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot
the Station
.

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Earth: Your Home, Our Mission

We pioneer and support an amazing range of advanced technologies and tools to help us better understand our home planet, the solar system and far beyond.

Here are 5 ways our tech improves life here on Earth…

1. Eyes in the Sky Spot Fires on the Ground

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Our Earth observing satellites enable conservation groups to spot and monitor fires across vast rainforests, helping them protect our planet on Earth Day and every day.

2. Helping Tractors Drive Themselves

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There has been a lot of talk about self-driving cars, but farmers have already been making good use of self-driving tractors for more than a decade – due in part to a partnership between John Deere and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Growing food sustainably requires smart technology – our GPS correction algorithms help self-driving tractors steer with precision, cutting down on water and fertilizer waste. 

3. Turning Smartphones into Satellites

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On Earth Day (and every day), we get nonstop “Earth selfies” thanks to Planet Labs’ small satellites, inspired by smartphones and created by a team at our Ames Research Center. The high res imagery helps conservation efforts worldwide.

4. Early Flood Warnings

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Monsoons, perhaps the least understood and most erratic weather pattern in the United States, bring rain vital to agriculture and ecosystems, but also threaten lives and property. Severe flash-flooding is common. Roads are washed out. Miles away from the cloudburst, dry gulches become raging torrents in seconds. The storms are often accompanied by driving winds, hail and barrages of lightning.

We are working to get better forecasting information to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Our satellites can track moisture in the air – helping forecasters provide an early warning of flash floods from monsoons.

5. Watching the World’s Water

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Around the world, agriculture is by far the biggest user of freshwater. Thanks in part to infrared imagery from Landsat, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), we can now map, in real time, how much water a field is using, helping conserve that precious resource.

We use the vantage point of space to understand and explore our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. Our observations of Earth’s complex natural environment are critical to understanding how our planet’s natural resources and climate are changing now and could change in the future.

Join the celebration online by using #NASA4Earth

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Earth from Afar

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

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This week we’re celebrating Earth Day 2018 with some of our favorite images of Earth from afar…

At 7.2 million Miles…and 4 Billion Miles

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Voyager famously captured two unique views of our homeworld from afar. One image, taken in 1977 from a distance of 7.3 million miles (11.7 million kilometers) (above), showed the full Earth and full Moon in a single frame for the first time in history. The second (below), taken in 1990 as part of a “family portrait of our solar system from 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers), shows Earth as a tiny blue speck in a ray of sunlight.” This is the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image immortalized by Carl Sagan.

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“This was our willingness to see the Earth as a one-pixel object in a far greater cosmos,” Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan said of the image. “It’s that humility that science gives us. That weans us from our childhood need to be the center of things. And Voyager gave us that image of the Earth that is so heart tugging because you can’t look at that image and not think of how fragile, how fragile our world is. How much we have in common with everyone with whom we share it; our relationship, our relatedness, to everyone on this tiny pixel.“

A Bright Flashlight in a Dark Sea of Stars

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Our Kepler mission captured Earth’s image as it slipped past at a distance of 94 million miles (151 million kilometers). The reflection was so extraordinarily bright that it created a saber-like saturation bleed across the instrument’s sensors, obscuring the neighboring Moon.

Hello and Goodbye

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This beautiful shot of Earth as a dot beneath Saturn’s rings was taken in 2013 as thousands of humans on Earth waved at the exact moment the spacecraft pointed its cameras at our home world. Then, in 2017, Cassini caught this final view of Earth between Saturn’s rings as the spacecraft spiraled in for its Grand Finale at Saturn.

‘Simply Stunning’

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The image is simply stunning. The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17…which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.“ -Noah Petro, Deputy Project Scientist for our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

Goodbye—for now—at 19,000 mph

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As part of an engineering test, our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this image of Earth and the Moon in January 2018 from a distance of 39.5 million miles (63.6 million kilometers). When the camera acquired the image, the spacecraft was moving away from our home planet at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour (8.5 kilometers per second). Earth is the largest, brightest spot in the center of the image, with the smaller, dimmer Moon appearing to the right. Several constellations are also visible in the surrounding space.

The View from Mars

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A human observer with normal vision, standing on Mars, could easily see Earth and the Moon as two distinct, bright "evening stars.”

Moon Photobomb

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“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It provides a view of the far side of the Moon, which is never directly visible to us here on Earth. “I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” – Michael Freilich, Director of our Earth Science Division.

Eight Days Out

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Eight days after its final encounter with Earththe second of two gravitational assists from Earth that helped boost the spacecraft to Jupiterthe Galileo spacecraft looked back and captured this remarkable view of our planet and its Moon. The image was taken from a distance of about 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers).

A Slice of Life

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Earth from about 393,000 miles (633,000 kilometers) away, as seen by the European Space Agency’s comet-bound Rosetta spacecraft during its third and final swingby of our home planet in 2009.

So Long Earth

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The Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft captured several stunning images of Earth during a gravity assist swingby of our home planet on Aug. 2, 2005.

Earth Science: Taking a Closer Look

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Our home planet is a beautiful, dynamic place. Our view from Earth orbit sees a planet at change. Check out more images of our beautiful Earth here.

Join Our Earth Day Celebration!

We pioneer and supports an amazing range of advanced technologies and tools to help scientists and environmental specialists better understand and protect our home planet – from space lasers to virtual reality, small satellites and smartphone apps. 

To celebrate Earth Day 2018, April 22, we are highlighting many of these innovative technologies and the amazing applications behind them.

Learn more about our Earth Day plans HERE

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A Tour of our Moon

Want to go to the Moon? 

Let our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter take you there!

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Our lunar orbiter, also known as LRO, has been collecting data on lunar topography, temperature, resources, solar radiation, and geology since it launched nine years ago. Our latest collection of this data is now in 4K resolution. This updated “Tour of the Moon” takes you on a virtual tour of our nearest neighbor in space, with new science updates from the vastly expanded data trove.

Orientale Basin

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First stop, Orientale Basin located on the rim of the western nearside. It’s about the size of Texas and is the best-preserved impact structure on the Moon. Topography data from LRO combined with gravity measurements from our twin GRAIL spacecraft reveal the structure below the surface and help us understand the geologic consequences of large impacts.

South-Pole and Shackleton Crater

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Unlike Earth, the Moon’s axis is barely tilted relative to the Sun. This means that there are craters at the poles where the sunlight never reaches, called permanently shadowed regions. As a result, the Moon’s South Pole has some of the coldest measured places in the solar system. How cold? -410 degrees F.

Because these craters are so cold and dark, water that happens to find its way into them never has the opportunity to evaporate. Several of the instruments on LRO have found evidence of water ice, which you can see in the highlighted spots in this visualization.

South-Pole Aitken Basin

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South Pole-Aitken Basin is the Moon’s largest, deepest and oldest observed impact structure. Its diameter is about 2,200 km or 1,367 miles across and takes up ¼ of the Moon! If there was a flat, straight road and you were driving 60 mph, it would take you about 22 hours to drive across. And the basin is so deep that nearly two Mount Everests stacked on each other would fit from the bottom of the basin to the rim. South-Pole Aitken Basin is a top choice for a landing site on the far side of the Moon.

Tycho Crater

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Now let’s go to the near side. Tycho Crater is 100 million years young. Yes, that’s young in geologic time. The central peak of the impact crater likely formed from material that rebounded back up after being compressed in the impact, almost like a spring. Check out that boulder on top. It looks small in this image, but it could fill a baseball stadium.

Aristarchus Plateau

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Also prominent on the nearside is the Aristarchus Plateau. It features a crater so bright that you could see it with your naked eye from Earth! The Aristarchus Plateau is particularly interesting to our scientists because it reveals much of the Moon’s volcanic history. The region is covered in rocks from volcanic eruptions and the large river-like structure is actually a channel made from a long-ago lava flow.

Apollo 17 Landing Site

As much as we study the Moon looking for sites to visit, we also look back at places we’ve already been. This is because the new data that LRO is gathering helps us reinterpret the geology of familiar places, giving scientists a better understanding of the sequence of events in early lunar history.

Here, we descend to the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The LRO camera is even able to capture a view of the bottom half of the Apollo 17 Lunar Lander, which still sits on the surface, as well as the rover vehicle. These images help preserve our accomplishment of human exploration on the Moon’s surface.

North Pole

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Finally, we reach the North Pole. Like the South Pole, there are areas that are in permanent shadow and others that bask in nearly perpetual light. LRO scientists have taken detailed brightness and terrain measurements of the North Pole in order to model these areas of sunlight and shadow through time.  Sunlit peaks and crater rims here may be ideal locations for generating solar power for future expeditions to the Moon.

LRO was designed as a one-year mission. Now in its ninth year, the spacecraft and the data emphasize the power of long-term data collection. Thanks to its many orbits around the Moon, we have been able to expand on lunar science from the Apollo missions while paving the way for future lunar exploration. And as the mission continues to gather data, it will provide us with many more opportunities to take a tour of our Moon. 

And HERE’s the full “Tour of the Moon” video:

We hope you enjoyed the tour. If you’d like to explore the moon further, please visit moon.nasa.gov and moontrek.jpl.nasa.gov.

Make sure to follow @NASAMoon on Twitter for the latest lunar updates and photos.

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Why We Celebrate Search and Rescue Technologie…

Today (4/06), we celebrate the special radio frequency transmitted by emergency beacons to the international search and rescue network. 

This 406 MHz frequency, used only for search and rescue, can be “heard” by satellites hundreds of miles above the ground! The satellites then “forward” the location of the beacon back to Earth, helping first responders locate people in distress worldwide, whether from a plane crash, a boating accident or other emergencies.

Our Search and Rescue office, based out of our Goddard Space Flight Center, researches and develops emergency beacon technology, passing the technology to companies who manufacture the beacons, making them available to the public at retail stores. The beacons are designed for personal, maritime and aviation use.

The search and rescue network, Cospas-Sarsat, is an international program that ensures the compatibility of distress alert services with the needs of users. Its current space segment relies on instruments onboard low-Earth and geosynchronous orbiting satellites, hundreds to thousands of miles above us. 

Space instruments forward distress signals to the search and rescue ground segment, which is operated by partner organizations around the world! They manage specific regions of the ground network. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the region containing the United States, which reaches across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as parts of Central and South America.

NOAA notifies organizations that coordinate search and rescue efforts of a 406 MHz distress beacon’s activation and location. Within the U.S., the U.S. Air Force responds to land-based emergencies and the U.S. Coast Guard responds to water-based emergencies. Local public service organizations like police and fire departments, as well as civilian volunteers, serve as first responders.

Here at NASA, we research, design and test search and rescue instruments and beacons to refine the existing network. Aeronautical beacon tests took place at our Langley Research Center in 2015. Using a 240-foot-high structure originally used to test Apollo spacecraft, our Search and Rescue team crashed three planes to test the survivability of these beacons, developing guidelines for manufacturers and installation into aircraft.

In the future, first responders will rely on a new constellation of search and rescue instruments on GPS systems on satellites in medium-Earth orbit, not hundreds, but THOUSANDS of miles overhead. These new instruments will enable the search and rescue network to locate a distress signal more quickly than the current system and achieve accuracy an order of magnitude better, from a half mile to approximately 300 feet. Our Search and Rescue office is developing second-generation 406 MHz beacons that make full use of this new system.

We will also incorporate these second-generation beacons into the Orion Crew Survival System. The Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons will be attached to astronaut life preservers. After splashdown, if the Orion crew exits the capsule due to an emergency, these beacons will make sure we know the exact location of floating astronauts! Our Johnson Space Center is testing this technology for used in future human spaceflight and exploration missions.

If you’re the owner of an emergency beacon, remember that beacon registration is free, easy and required by law. 

To register your beacon, visit: beaconregistration.noaa.gov

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What’s Made in a Thunderstorm and Faster Than …

A flash of lightning. A roll of thunder. These are normal stormy sights and sounds. But sometimes, up above the clouds, stranger things happen. Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has spotted bursts of gamma rays – some of the highest-energy forms of light in the universe – coming from thunderstorms. Gamma rays are usually found coming from objects with crazy extreme physics like neutron stars and black holes

So why is Fermi seeing them come from thunderstorms?

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Thunderstorms form when warm, damp air near the ground starts to rise and encounters colder air. As the warm air rises, moisture condenses into water droplets. The upward-moving water droplets bump into downward-moving ice crystals, stripping off electrons and creating a static charge in the cloud.

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The top of the storm becomes positively charged, and the bottom becomes negatively charged, like two ends of a battery. Eventually the opposite charges build enough to overcome the insulating properties of the surrounding air – and zap! You get lightning.

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Scientists suspect that lightning reconfigures the cloud’s electrical field. In some cases this allows electrons to rush toward the upper part of the storm at nearly the speed of light. That makes thunderstorms the most powerful natural particle accelerators on Earth!

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When those electrons run into air molecules, they emit a terrestrial gamma-ray flash, which means that thunderstorms are creating some of the highest energy forms of light in the universe. But that’s not all – thunderstorms can also produce antimatter! Yep, you read that correctly! Sometimes, a gamma ray will run into an atom and produce an electron and a positron, which is an electron’s antimatter opposite!

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The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope can spot terrestrial gamma-ray flashes within 500 miles of the location directly below the spacecraft. It does this using an instrument called the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor which is primarily used to watch for spectacular flashes of gamma rays coming from the universe.

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There are an estimated 1,800 thunderstorms occurring on Earth at any given moment. Over the 10 years that Fermi has been in space, it has spotted about 5,000 terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. But scientists estimate that there are 1,000 of these flashes every day – we’re just seeing the ones that are within 500 miles of Fermi’s regular orbits, which don’t cover the U.S. or Europe.

The map above shows all the flashes Fermi has seen since 2008. (Notice there’s a blob missing over the lower part of South America. That’s the South Atlantic Anomaly, a portion of the sky where radiation affects spacecraft and causes data glitches.)

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Fermi has also spotted terrestrial gamma-ray flashes coming from individual tropical weather systems. The most productive system we’ve seen was Tropical Storm Julio in 2014, which later became a hurricane. It produced four flashes in just 100 minutes!

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Learn more about what Fermi’s discovered about gamma rays over the last 10 years and how we’re celebrating its accomplishments.

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See Why Our Researchers Explore Earth’s Extrem…

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When we talk about exploration in far-flung places, you might think of space telescopes taking images of planets outside our solar system, or astronauts floating on the International Space Station. 

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But did you know our researchers travel to some of Earth’s most inaccessible and dangerous places, too? 

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Two scientists working with the ICESat-2 mission just finished a trek from the South Pole to latitude 88 south, a journey of about 450 miles. They had to travel during the Antarctic summer – the region’s warmest time, with near-constant sunshine – but the trek was still over solid ice and snow. 

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The trip lasted 14 days, and was an important part of a process known as calibration and validation. ICESat-2 will launch this fall, and the team was taking extremely precise elevation measurements that will be used to validate those taken by the satellite. 

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Sometimes our research in Earth’s remote regions helps us understand even farther-flung locations…like other planets. 

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Geologic features on Mars look very similar to islands and landforms created by volcanoes here on our home planet. 

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As hot jets of magma make their way to Earth’s surface, they create new rocks and land – a process that may have taken place on Mars and the Moon.

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In 2015, our researchers walked on newly cooled lava on the Holuhraun volcano in Iceland to take measurements of the landscape, in order to understand similar processes on other rocky bodies in our solar system.

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There may not be flowing lava in the mangrove forests in Gabon, but our researchers have to brave mosquitoes and tree roots that reach up to 15-foot high as they study carbon storage in the vegetation there.

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The scientists take some measurements from airplanes, but they also have to gather data from the ground in one our of planet’s most pristine rainforests, climbing over and around roots that can grow taller than people. They use these measurements to create a 3-D map of the ecosystem, which helps them understand how much carbon in stored in the plants. 

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You can follow our treks to Earth’s most extreme locales on our Earth Expeditions blog.

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