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Desert Companion

Destination known: Mars in the Mojave

Rover

Gas up the car — we’re taking a trip to the Red Planet (or close)

When the Mars Science Laboratory rover touches down on the surface of Mars Aug. 5, don’t be surprised if it looks a lot like the desert surrounding Las Vegas.

Ever since the Cold War jump-started space exploration in the late ’50s, planetary geologists have been coming to the Mojave Desert to study what other worlds might look and feel like to robotic and human explorers. Although the first extraterrestrial target was the moon, scientists quickly shifted their sights to Mars, drawn by the presence of Earth-like geologic features. Wind, volcanism, catastrophic floods, faulting and alternating wet and dry conditions left characteristic marks on the red planet, but these same processes dominate the landscape of the Mojave as well.

Many of the classic test and study sites are just a few hours from Las Vegas. A short drive south on I-15 to Primm puts you in the middle of the Ivanpah playa. This wind-swept, ephemeral lake is a potential analog for the evaporite deposits that formed in Meridini Planum, where Opportunity, one of the twin 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers, is still operating. Although no evidence of life has yet been found on any other planet, the alternating wet and dry conditions are what we hope might foster a life-friendly environment on other worlds.

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It seems like there’s a Mars analog at every turn in the Mojave National Preserve (nps.gov/moja). The historic Kelso Depot visitor center is a civilized outpost from which you can explore the extraterrestrial landscape. The Kelso Dunes, eight miles south, is an impressive mountain of sand produced by the shifting desert winds. North of Kelso is the Cima Volcanic Field. Impossible to miss, massive cinder cones dominate the landscape and dark black basalt flows nearly reach the road. Among the volcanoes, a collapsed lava tube resembles the cave skylights recently discovered on Mars. Just south of the preserve is Amboy Crater, where the combination of volcanism and wind produced one of the best examples of Martian-style wind streaks on Earth.

Among the playas and alluvial fans of Death Valley is “Mars Hill,” whose rocky surface has been compared to the Viking landing sites from the 1970s. Researchers have used this location to determine how difficult it would be for rovers to navigate Martian terrain. The list goes on, including Badwater Basin, Ubehebe Crater and Dumont Dunes, where in May, the Mars Science Laboratory test rover “Scarecrow” was taken out for a trial run and photo-op.
— Scott Nowicki

Scott Nowicki is an assistant professor in residence in the Geoscience Department at UNLV. He has worked on four missions to Mars.

Ropes course

Camp Lee Challenge Course

Few locals know about Lee Canyon’s other high-adrenaline destination, the Camp Lee Challenge Course. Open to groups of 20 to 50, Camp Lee offers team-building low elements and confidence-building high elements up to 35 feet above the ground. Their signature obstacle, called the Leap of Faith, sees participants climb straight up a telephone pole, stand on the top, and then jump off to grab a rubber chicken dangling out of reach. Don’t look down! — Alan Gegax

 

Walk a mile (in your own shoes)

For millennia, humans roamed the Earth with nothing but calluses to protect their feet. Then came shoes. Today, hikers have so many options that navigating the shoe department can be tougher than navigating outdoors. Here are a few tips for your summer footfalls.

Size matters. Proper fit is critical. Each manufacturer judges size slightly differently, and a half-size of variation can cause blisters, cramps, and injuries. Try out your shoes thoroughly before you take them hiking.

Know your terrain. Wet or snowy conditions demand a waterproof boot, while heat requires breathable fabric so your feet don’t bathe in sweat. For hiking through streams, remember that the same holes that let water out of your shoes will let rocks and sand in. Try a hybrid like Vibram’s Five Fingers or Columbia’s PowerDrain.

You get what you pay for. Outlets sell hiking shoes for as little as $20, but they’re not really made to withstand the demands of the trail. It may sting to spend $150 or more on boots, but your feet will thank you — and the shoes can last for years. If you’re nervous about your purchase, buy from a store with a “no questions” return policy like REI. — A.G.

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