A “cattle on road” sign standing near county roads approaching Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

The sign on the dirt road said “Cattle on Road,” but all around was desert, dry and empty, except for scrub brush and one black steer that stared as our caravan of vans and Jeeps drove by in a veil of dust. Then suddenly, the veil lifted and there it was — an oval thumbprint in the Earth two and a half miles long. Kilbourne Hole. In our car, people gasped. It was beautiful, otherworldly – and it actually was a hole. Somehow this came as a surprise, despite the name.   It would be the first of many surprises.

We are a small band of journalists – four students and two teachers – who are covering a NASA-funded field research trip to Kilbourne Hole and Aden Crater in the volcanic field of southern New Mexico.  In this landscape — about as close as you can get to a moonscape on Earth – the researchers want to learn how handheld geological instruments could best be used by astronauts on the moon or Mars. Joining the researchers is Butch Wilmore, a Navy test pilot-turned-astronaut who spent four months in space on the International Space Station, including 24 hours walking in space.

All in all, the team includes more than 30 people from 10 institutions, from a trio of wildly enthusiastic undergraduates at the University of Texas El Paso to a wise and helpful retired NASA geologist who trained astronauts and developed science operations for future moon missions.

Day 1 at Kilbourne Hole, Butch Wilmore and NASA geologist Liz Rampe played the role of astronauts on two simulated moon walks (in NASA-speak, these are EVA’s or extra-vehicular activities). With the clock running, they scouted sites and called in teams to use their instruments to gather information on the chemistry of various bits of rock.  Everything was documented in multiple ways: A thermal camera provided heat pictures of the sites, a drone camera shot the scene from above, and a Go-Pro camera was worn by the astronaut.

This field operation has taken years of planning, led by Jake Bleacher, a planetary volcanologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  It’s part of a larger study, called RIS4E, led by Tim Glotch, a planetary geologist at Stony Brook University. We’re from Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, which is how we got the chance to observe this work in progress. It’s science in the raw – more questions than answers –and in this blog we’ll share it with you as we see it.

As you’ll hear, the biggest surprise of Day 1 was that we really didn’t know what heat is.