by Shane L. Larson
The wind is brisker, the nights cooler and crisper, and something about the slanting misted light of morning says autumn is here. Over your morning nibbles, with your family prattling around you in the kitchen and the hum of a weekend just getting underway, you look back through your memories on social media, and it’s like “Wow! I had some awesome adventures this summer!”
During the daily grind, when the morning commute is doing its best to wear down the gears of your soul, and the daily maintenance of jobs and life stretches well beyond the length of a reasonable ToDo list, I sometimes despair that there are no great adventures to be had. But those are just little demons whispering, preying on weariness. In reality, I think there are always new adventures launching without you even knowing it. Some of them lead to great friendships and growth for your community around you. Some of them bring great good to the world, even if it is just a small group of people around you. A few indelibly ink a memory in your heart and soul that you will carry around with you to the end of your days in this Cosmos. This is an adventure story with all of these. Like most adventures, it arrived unexpectedly, and grew from humble beginnings. It started one winter night in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
I’m a bit of a short sleeper, so I’m always up late at night, long after the rest of my family and friends are slumbering. It’s always quiet, just me and the cats. When it’s nice, I can do a bit of backyard astronomy, but if the weather is inclement, I can wheedle away hours in the workshop or at the Lego table. More often than not, I have papers from my students to read, or lectures to write, or homework to grade. The latter was the case in the early morning hours of 6 February 2017. My study is on the second floor of our house, and I have my writing desk situated to look out over the wetlands north of our home.
I don’t recall exactly what I was doing, but I was up and at my desk. At 1:25am I just happened to be looking north and witnessed one of the awesome transient events you can see in the sky, a fireball. I’m an active amateur astronomer (I’m also a professional astronomer, but that’s a discussion for another day), so I’ve literally spent thousands of hours out under the night sky. I’ve seen fireballs before, but they are not common enough to simply shrug your shoulders when one graces the skies overhead. They are all of them dramatic, bright, beautiful, colorful, and awesome to behold. This one was no different. It had a brilliant teal colored head and a streaky tail that was long and “sparky” with a yellowish color. It was BRIGHT. So bright that it lit up the walls inside the house and cast shadows, like a long duration flash bulb had gone off.
I’m one of those amateur astronomers who has a strong habit of writing everything down when it happens; if you have a birder friend who keeps a lifelist of all the birds they’ve seen, I’m of the group of amateur astronomers who do the same thing only with objects in the night sky. I try and immediately write down everything interesting I see happening in the sky. I note everything I can — the time, how “big” it looked in the sky, how long it lasted, and anything I noticed like its color or shape or behaviour. All those details are important to write down in the moment before your brain thinks about it and embellishes it. Colors are completely subjective, but for an event like this, they are the best description you can usually give. The size is also not precise, but you can use old astronomer tricks to estimate the size of an object, either by referencing other things you can see in the sky (like the positions of stars) or using your hands. In this case, the fireball was perfectly framed in my window, so I used my hands to estimate angles. I also like to simply write down my responses — from my journal entry above, you can see I was pretty excited.It is all well and good to keep your own notes about what you see, your personal dialogue of your relationship with the sky, but if no one ever hears about what you saw in the sky we can’t use your experiences to learn more about the Universe and our place in it. There is something special in the sharing of communal experiences with the Cosmos, and sometimes we can learn something new at the same time. When that fireball lit up the night that winter morning, I did two things. The first was to ping all of my local friends on email and social media, on the off chance someone had also seen it. The second was to report the event to the American Meteor Society, which collects observations and collates them together.
In the end, hundreds of people all over Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana reported the event, and collating all of our reports generated a good guess about what the fireball did, pointing to something I had speculated: it probably came down in Lake Michigan. You can see the report at the AMS online here.My email to my friends and colleagues at the Adler Planetarium ended up being the seed for this particular adventure story. One of my hobbies is constructing underwater robots (ROVs — remotely operated vehicles), which is also another story for another day. But in my email, I speculated on whether or not we could use such a “hobby” to perhaps dive down to the floor of Lake Michigan and take a look around on the off chance that we might find something.
Now why would we do that? Material from outer space rains down on the Earth all the time. On any given night, if you spend enough time looking up, you’ll see numerous quick streaks of light slashing across the sky — the “shooting stars” you learned about when you were young. Most of these are small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and burn up in the atmosphere high above you, leaving only the flash of light and your memory of its existence. Throughout the year, we have regular “meteor showers” when the Earth sails through the trail of dust and debris left behind by comets as they blaze their journey toward the Sun, dropping fragments of ice and dust that we see as their tails. Such events are not unique to Earth — they also happen on other worlds (one of my first scientific papers was about using comet orbits to predict when you might see meteor showers if you lived on other planets in the solar system). Larger fragments of stuff also hit the Earth, though less frequently, with fewer and fewer instances as the size gets larger and larger. Things the size of baseballs and laundry baskets will light up the night sky and while they can cause damage, aren’t devastating. Most events of this size are over the ocean and out of sight of stargazing humans because 71% of the Earth is covered by water!NASA estimates that around 100 tons of material hits the Earth every single day. But most of that is small flecks that vanish in a sparkling flash of light, sometimes seen by someone like you looking up from their backyard. But a few pieces — a precious few — make it all the way down. Something about the size of your fist has a good chance of making it to the ground. Meteorites are not as common as everyday rocks, but not so rare that ordinary people like you and I can own small fragments purchased in museum gift shops or from reputable dealers. Never-the-less, they are rare enough to still be of intense scientific interest. After tracking this random fireball through the skies of the Midwest it seemed, perhaps, we knew where one had come down in Lake Michigan, and maybe a little adventure was in order.
The adventure started innocently enough, because my Adler colleague, Chris Bresky, thought pitching ROVs into Lake Michigan to look for sunken space rocks not only sounded cool, but would be a great way to engage area teens in some science investigation. It has all the hallmarks of what science is all about. It begins with a phase of Big Thinking, where there are no boundaries. You put a group of interested people together in a room or on an email thread, and you just talk. The rules are simple: no idea is too whacky, no question is too silly, everything should be put out there for discussion. During the Big Thinking phase there are no limits or considerations of limits, there is no quarter given to practicality or logic, there is no worry about regulations or costs or anything. That is all for later. In the beginning, you want to let your imagination run wild, and let your curiosity and excitement drive what you are thinking and talking about. Why? Because good ideas come from unfettered imaginative thinking. There are many ideas and hypotheses that are untenable or wrong. There’s nothing wrong with exploring those ideas — that is the pathway to finding out what is possible and what is true. When we are first embarking on a journey of scientific investigation, we do not know where fundamental insights will come from, or what will spark them.
It’s not that all the squirrel-brained ideas that come out of the Big Thinking phase are workable or even reasonable. That’s not the point of Big Thinking. The point of Big Thinking is to have conversations about the ideas that form around all the squirrel-brained ideas. For this project, we started with simply the idea of an ROV to photograph whether there was a piece of this space rock on the bottom of Lake Michigan. That simple question opened up a remarkable spectrum of questions that would ultimately be an important part of our adventure.
What was the bottom of Lake Michigan like? Probably rock and dirt, as the depths in the target zone are too deep for sunlight to penetrate and support plant life. Is it mud or hard packed surface? If it’s mud, will we see little divots from meteorites or will they sink in the mud? If it is hard packed will the meteorite sitting on the surface just look like another rock? What is the Lake really like in the area where the fall happened? No one really knows, because 99% of the Lake hasn’t been seen, only surveyed by sonar and most of that at low resolution. Do we just want to take pictures? What if there is a big rock we want to recover? Can we make a robot arm to pick it up? Will we need to dig on the bottom of the Lake? Can an ROV even lift a giant space rock?
And so on. Over time, we coalesce together into a team, and we develop some common language and ideas, and a plan begins to emerge. In this case:
- we didn’t even know where there was a space rock, only a huge area that it could be in. If we were going to search, we had to be able to search vast areas.
- we absolutely wanted to recover some space rocks if they were on the bottom of the lake. Anything was probably small, so we’d have to recover material and separate it on the surface
- like outer space, the bottom of the lake is not amenable to humans hanging out, so we’d have to do this space-exploration style — with uncrewed, mechanical entities
- we’ve never done ANY of this before; few if any people have looked for space rocks in deep water before. So we’re going to have to figure out how to do it, teach ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and then execute our search on the true frontier — the unexplored depths of Lake Michigan.
After that, it’s time to start rolling. You get your hands dirty and your feet wet and you make your brain tired, for months. Not exhausted tired; happy tired. So tired you can’t fall asleep at night because you’re still turning a problem over in your head tired. The core team in this endeavour are a group of kids from Chicago we call “the Adler Teens” (follow them on Twitter, and Instagram). Like all teens, they are extraordinary. They’re excited, they’re passionate, they’re full of boundless energy, and they want to learn how to solve cool problems. There are also a few of us grown-ups around too, but we try to stand back and let the team push the project forward. The beauty of science is there are as many ways to solve a problem as there are people trying to solve them. Some solutions work better than others, but no solution is right and no solution is wrong. I’ve been a science educator my entire career, and while I could go and figure out a way to find and recover space rocks on the bottom of Lake Michigan, I long ago learned that some of the most inventive solutions to problems come from students who are learning to flex their scientific skills.Our project became known as “AQUARIUS” (suitably nautical and astronomical at the same time — you can follow their progress on OpenExplorer), and over the course of the next year it grew into an extraordinary voyage of discovery. The first part of the journey involved the team figuring out clever ways they could recover meteorite fragments from the bottom of the Lake. The team settled on the idea of a towed sled with scoops and magnets that could be pulled behind a boat in long transects across the fall field on the bottom of the Lake. They made simulated meteorites in the lab, threw them in shallow water and tested their sled repeatedly. When their design didn’t work quite as expected, or it ran into an unexpected problem, they rolled their sleeves up again and went back into “Big Think” mode, and thought of a way to fix the problem. They deployed and retested.
After more than a year of work, the team was ready to take their equipment and hit the open water, searching the depths of Lake Michigan for fragments of a space rock that had fallen more than a year before, waiting quietly and patiently to be found in the dark depths of the Lake. I had the great honor of accompanying them on a sunny day in July 2018.
Our port of call was Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Our ship was the SS Neeskay, a research vessel owned and operated by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Built in 1953, the vessel had served many roles during its time at sea, but was converted into an expeditionary scientific ship in 1970. This summer, it carried a group of us on a hunt for space rocks on the bottom of Lake Michigan…
This post is the first of two describing my adventures with the Adler Planetarium’s AQUARIUS team. The rest of the story is in the next post: