Keeping Mars scientists safe in the Arctic

What a radiological control technician supervisor was doing 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle with a team of scientists

February 9, 2023

James Harper Ice Opt
James Harper.

By James Harper

In his own words, James Harper, a health physics field coordinator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, gives a fascinating account of why he accompanied a team of the Laboratory’s Mars scientists this summer to a 31-million-year-old crater, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Around the Lab, Harper provides radiation protection field support to workers carrying out national security missions. This unexpected assignment definitely broadened his horizons.

Wow! The day I never expected has finally arrived. As I cross the threshold of the Boeing 737, I reflect. Several months have slowly passed until this point and now in a few short days I’ll be exploring the secluded Arctic, in total isolation, thousands of miles from civilization — in the name of science!

Traveling to a Mars-like, 31-million-year-old crater

In my day job as a health physics field coordinator with the Laboratory, I never imagined that one day I would be boarding a plane for Canada’s Haughton Impact Crater, a destination 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1000 miles south of the North Pole. Located on Devon Island in northern Canada, this crater was selected as the optimum site for the Gamma Rotorcraft for Analog Planetary Environments (GRAPE) team’s research because of its notable similarity to the surface of Mars. At more than 30 million years old, Haughton Impact Crater is considered one of the Earth’s best Mars analog sites.

About the GRAPE project

Our primary mission as the Lab’s GRAPE team is to refine and optimize current methods of remote material identification using active gamma ray and neutron spectroscopy for future missions on Mars and other planets or moons.

As a member of the Laboratory’s Radiation Protection Division, my role on the GRAPE team is to ensure the safety of our pulsed neutron generator after our arrival at the crater and prior to our departure. The team will use the generator to produce neutrons that will interact with the soil and water in the crater and produce reflected neutrons whose energy signatures can be measured. It’s a simple and accurate method — currently in use on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover — to determine the elements present in geologic materials.

Because the generator works by fusing tritium and deuterium together to produce neutrons, I perform a leak test by sampling the exterior of the machine with special swipes and then analyzing the results with a liquid scintillation counter. My job is to keep everyone on the team, including myself, safe from potential contamination in this barren environment.

Grape Briefing 30daf
GRAPE’s international collaborator Gordon Osinski (University of Western Ontario) briefs his doctoral students on the day’s agenda, while the GRAPE team listens. Resources like ATVs had to be shared between the two teams.

Protecting researchers 400 miles south of the North Pole

During each research day, I carefully follow the Lab’s Radiological Work Permit. After each one-hour exposure with the generator, I survey the area of operations using a neutron radiation detector and a beta/gamma radiation detector (RO-20). This process verifies that the generator (and surrounding area) is safe so that the researchers can break equipment down and relocate it for additional data collection and analysis.

Every day, we visit sites around the crater and perform anywhere from two to five exposures, each an hour long, with the pulse neutron generator while collecting data with the ultra-sensitive neutron and gamma ray detectors. Data collection sites are selected based on the types of minerals and rocks present, the formation and outcrop geometry and the terrain.

Now, after returning home from our Arctic adventure, the GRAPE team is analyzing all the data that we collected. Eventually, this data will be used to develop more compact, efficient and effective methods for remote material identification that will hopefully be used in future space exploration.

A day in the Arctic life

At this time of year in the Arctic, it’s daylight 24/7. Not just daylight, but intense sun all day and all night. For the first few days, it was very difficult to sleep in a bright yellow tent with the sun beating down on it. Luckily, I had a sleep mask and a nice sleeping bag with a huge hood I could cover my head with.

Another difficulty was gauging what time it was at any given moment. Oftentimes, we would be engaged in conversation and then realize it was 2 a.m. before we’d know it.

Most of the time it was in the mid-30s (F). One day it even got up to the low-50s (T-shirt weather)!

Weather was beautiful most of the time except for the last day: 40mph sustained winds made disassembling tents (and the rest of camp) a complete nightmare. At one point, I dropped a bright orange tent bag and chased after it on an ATV for 20 minutes before catching up to it.

In mud up to our waists

The terrain around our encampment was generally flat and adjacent to a fresh ice-melt river.

However, most of the 14-mile-wide crater was mountainous with streams and rivers everywhere. It was also very muddy in places where the snow was melting. It was often very difficult to distinguish dry terrain from mud, and we would find ourselves unexpectedly waist-deep in mud. ATVs often took a long time to get unstuck in these areas.

We surrounded our camp with a polar bear fence — several segments of fishing line suspended three feet off the ground attached to shotgun shell blanks. This would hopefully achieve two things: alert us while sleeping to a polar bear within our camp, and hopefully frighten any nearby bears enough to make them think twice about continuing. Lucky for us, we were never awoken by a loud bang.

Every member of the team also carried bear-bangers at all times to scare off bears. These spring-loaded mechanisms that shoot gun-powder capsules about 80 feet before exploding.

Great food and great people

Meals on our trip were surprisingly delicious. Using mostly dehydrated food and a few perishables, breakfasts would consist of a variety of cereals and granola with powdered milk and dehydrated fruits. Every few days we would have eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, muffins and oatmeal.

We would normally be in the field for lunch so we would each pack our own, choosing from a variety of fruit and nut bars, granola, and making our own wraps with different meats and cheeses. Dinner was worth looking forward to every single day. We had different pasta dishes with garlic bread a couple nights, curries with rice and coconut milk with grilled naan on others. Everyone took turns cooking the different meals, doing dishes and gathering water.

We retrieved our water in two 10-gallon containers about twice a day from the river about half a mile away. The river water came almost entirely from snowmelt and did not require filtration because there are very few land animals on the island, keeping the water essentially free from harmful bacteria. I never thought I would distinguish good water from bad, but this water is the most spectacular thing I have ever tasted. So fresh and clean — it’s impossible to describe, and an experience that I will forever remember. I could not get enough.

On a hike one day, we approached the coastline covered in sea-ice and witnessed several seals coming up through cracks in the ice and lounging around. After observing for several minutes, we decided to depart because when seals are near the coastline, it means polar bears are most likely nearby. Other than that, we saw a variety of Arctic birds, caterpillars and spiders, and some of our team even discovered a nest with several large eider duck eggs on the bank of the river.

An intense spiritual journey

I have never been in such seclusion — not many people have. This trip for me is most aptly characterized as an intense spiritual journey. Oftentimes, I felt like I was on some distant planet far from earth. No darkness, no structures, no organic life (or very little). The air and water were crisp and clean. The nearest medical care facility was a 15-hour process away. This was the experience of a lifetime that I will forever cherish.

In Resolute (the nearest settlement), we had the opportunity to meet several local Inuit and discuss what life is like living in the Arctic permanently. During a hike along the coastline, we met a gentleman on an ATV who runs sled dogs in the winter while hunting walrus, seals, musk oxen and polar bear, sometimes being gone for weeks at a time out on the ice. They don’t do this for recreation, but for survival. Every part of every kill is utilized. I have been to several different countries and met all sorts of people and experienced different cultures, but after this trip I can say the Inuit are some of the most fascinating and resilient people in the world.

(Note: The Gamma Rotorcraft for Analog Planetary Environments project is a collaboration between U.S. and Canadian researchers, led by Los Alamos.)

Grape Team
The GRAPE team, from left to right: Dan Seitz, Ann Ollila, Suzanne Nowicki, Gordon “Oz” Osinksi, Nina Lanza, James Harper, Margie Root and Lisa Danielson.