by Shane L. Larson
When you stand on the shores of Lake Michigan, you cannot see the far shore. Many days of the year, the surf is a gentle lapping over stones or against breakwaters, but there are definitely days when weather whips the water into a frenzy, tossing up waves worthy of ocean waves. You can’t help but notice it is big water.
Lake Michigan is the second largest of the Great Lakes, covering an area of 58,000 square kilometers and harboring 4918 cubic kilometers of water. In the early morning hours of 6 Feb 2017, a hunk of debris from outer space hurtled into Earth’s atmosphere, somewhere in the skies slightly to the west of Kewaskum, Wisconsin. Leaving a glittering trail of burning dust and shining brightly enough to cast shadows across the dark winter landscape of the Midwest, this space rock broke up and the fragments rained down about 10 miles off-shore in Lake Michigan, near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Despite happening at roughly 1:30am, 511 people across the midwest reported seeing it. All those reports, together with a few others we had heard, let us make a good guess where it might have fallen in the Lake.
Here “we” are myself and colleagues from the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium. “We” are a few professional scientists and (sorta) grown-ups, and a remarkable group of young people from the Adler, called “The Adler Teens.” In the grandest tradition of scientific adventures, we decided it might be fun to go look for fragments of this space rock. On the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan for a fallen space rock sounds like fun, but why would we do such a thing? The answer begins far above our heads, in the inky dark between the planets. The solar system formed from a vast cloud of stuff that eventually accumulated into the planets and other bodies in the solar system. Just like when you clean your house, you don’t get every little fleck of detritus there is — there is always a little bit left over. The solar system is no different — there are bits of stuff floating around everywhere. You may remember from your ponderings of the night sky that there is a lot of such material between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, called the asteroid belt. There is an additional vast swarm of stuff surrounding the solar system called the Oort Cloud that is the origin of most of the comets we see.
But randomly drifting around there is also other stuff; when space rocks are in space they are called meteoroids. They are interesting because they hold a set of stories, about the early history of the solar system if they are left-overs, and about the historical nature of the other planets and moons if they are fragments blasted off of their surfaces in collisions. If by chance, one of them should tumble into the Earth’s atmosphere, the tremendous speeds generate tremendous heat and the meteoroid becomes a meteor, a glowing coal of stuff that briefly illuminates the night sky. You and I call these things “shooting stars,” and if they are spectacularly bright, we call them “fireballs.” Finally, if one of these meteors should make it to the surface of the Earth, where it can be picked up and handled and oogled and tested, we call it a meteorite. Meteorites harbour the same stories they did when they were meteoroids, they are just much easier to get your hands on. IF you can find them.
So we made a plan to survey the bottom of the Lake looking for this meteorite. While the original concept had been to simply dive down with an amateur ROV (“remotely operated vehicle”), like one from OpenROV, or designing our own, the team rapidly came to the realization that we wanted to keep anything we found and bring it to the surface. A cool idea, but a challenging one at the same time.
As is often the case in science, having a cool idea means you also have multiple competing problems that must be solved. For the Aquarius team, the competing problems were this: how do you cover a vast, VAST area of the lake bottom, find everything that looks interesting, and get it all to the surface. Working your way through such a list of problems is exactly what science is, and it is an iterative process. You imagine a solution, you tinker with it, you build prototypes, and you test them. When the prototypes don’t quite work, or fail dramatically, or succeed in unexpected ways, you take what you have learned and modify or build a new version, and start the testing all over again. Eventually, your efforts stabilize and coalesce around a final product — a plan, an experiment, a workable design. For Team Aquarius that design was a sled we call RV Starfall.
The sled is a scientific device in the grandest tradition. If you just walked up to the sled not knowing what was, then the most apt description of it you might come up with is contraption. A contraption it is. Overall, it is about 1.4 meters long, about 1.2 meters wide, and about 25 centimeters tall. Its made of plastics and metal, with bolts and cables holding it together. The superstructure of the sled is laid out by four vertical slats that define the shape. The slats are held together by cross-members that provide strength and rigidity. There are two sled-rails on the bottom, bent upward at the front, to help the sled glide over the underwater landscape, no matter what it might encounter (just like the rails on a winter sled or snowmobile).Attached at various points on the sled are different devices that were designed to find and recover samples and interesting objects (“possible meteorite candidates”) from the bottom of the lake. The strategy that guided the sled design was passive collection without inspection — pick up everything that is potentially interesting, and bring it back to the surface for later classification and analysis. Look at the back of the sled. There you’ll see three mesh footballs — if they hit something like a small rock (or meteorite!) as they get dragged across the lake bottom, the tines of the mesh spread open and the forward motion of the sled pushes the rock inside, then the mess closes behind it effectively trapping it. A brilliant mousetrap for a meteorite! There are also magnets all over the sled, strategically positioned to attract metallic fragments and hold onto them until the sled reaches the surface again.
The most active group of magnets are on the three wheels in between the vertical slats. As the sled gets dragged across the lake bottom, the wheels rotate and attach to any metallic fragments they encounter. As a wheel rotates up and over, it encounters a “scraper” that pries off any large bits and drops them into three catch pods (clear acrylic) between the slats. The idea here is that something large might attach itself to a magnet, but if you don’t pry it off and save it, something might later knock if off and you’ll never know you had it. On the bottom of the sled, there are some V-shaped brushes that guide material toward the magnet wheels, as well as a variety of other magnets attached on open surfaces to catch any “just in case” bits the sled might encounter.
Last but not least, there is an attachment bracket on the front of the sled, where we could mount a video camera to send live pictures of the bottom of the lake back to the surface. The sled is attached to a cable, which is lowered by a crane into the water to the lake bottom. A video cable attached to the camera is clipped to the cable as it is extended, delivering live movie data back to the team in the control room (“Mission Operations Center”) on the Neeskay.
We had a boat, we had a meteorite recovery sled, but where do we go? Despite the immense size of the lake, we had a good idea where the meteorite fell from all the reported sightings and the signature on weather radar the morning of the event. Several of the meteorite experts on our team had used codes that they had written as part of their professional research to model the breakup of the asteroid, predict the sizes of fragments, and then simulate how those fragments would fly through the atmosphere and into the water. Those analyses produced a map of the most likely areas to find meteorite fragments of different sizes. One of our meteorite colleagues on the expedition with us, Dr. Philip Willink, took those maps and predictions and estimated the average separation between meteorite fragments on the lake bottom. He estimated that in the areas dominated by 1 to 5 gram pieces (about the size of a marble) we would have to drag the sled about 1.5 kilometers across the lake bottom to encounter 2 fragments. The lake is big, and those aren’t very good odds. But it’s also not impossible!
Using Phil’s prediction, we decided to do several mile long drags of the sled (“transects” across the fall field). With that in mind, there was nothing left to do except go out and start searching. The anticipation was palpable — this was literally what we had been waiting more than a year for, planning and imagining.
Scouring the lake depths for fallen space rocks is an all day affair. We arrived bright and early to our expeditionary vessel, the Neeskay. We had a safety briefing from our captain, tried on some of the survival gear, and we set sail. Our destination was off-shore about 16 kilometers, in about 70 meters of water. The Great Lakes are temperamental — soggy days and blustery weather can whip the Lake into a frenzy. But on this day we were lucky — the skies were clear, the winds were gentle, and the Lake was calm.
We loaded all our gear on board, we stowed the sled on the rear launch deck, and before we knew it, Neeskay turned in the harbor, and pointed her bow to the southeast. We were off. The moment we left the harbor was striking to me. Being a kid from a land-locked state, the view off the bow was one of completely open water, with not a speck of land in sight. If I didn’t turn around and look back the way we had come, it could have just been the endless blue expanse of the open sea.It was about an hour to our first drop point. On the journey out, we had a briefing about the target area and the drag plan. We would do two mile-ish long transects, one NE to SW, and one N to S. After the first transect, we’d pull the sled up, clean it off and store recovered samples, then drop it for the second run. When we arrived on site, we attached the sled to a tow harness, we bolted our video camera onto the nose, and we hoisted it up until it hung vertically over the deck. Pivoting it out over the edge of the boat, it hung poised over the water, just waiting for a moment, then cable began to unreel, it slipped beneath the waves, and was gone. The video feed was carried along its own cable. We didn’t want it to get tangled up on something, so every couple of meters we paused and clipped it to the main tow cable to keep them together.
In the operations center, the team could watch the video feed as the sled descended into the depths. At first, the image was a brilliant cerulean green, but as the sled descended, less and less sunlight from the surface was making it to the depths, and the images got darker and darker. The meager light from the camera lights revealed only a monochrome murkiness, and the faint shadow of our cable stretching out into the darkness above, where the team waited aboard the Neeskay. And then….
Touchdown! The sled settled onto the bottom of the Lake, churning up a cloud of silt and dirt when it landed, not unlike the landers on the Moon. We had arrived!
As is often the case in science, we discovered something new and interesting immediately. Based on previous surveys of the Lake from two to three decades ago, the depths we were at had very little in the way of a visible macroscopic biosystem — a few lake creatures and fish, but by and large the temperature and light at these depths meant the lake bottom was a bare, open, abyssal plain. But that was not what we were greeted with on the monitors. In every direction, as far as our cameras could see, the lake bottom was covered in colonies of quagga mussels.
Quagga mussels, like their cousins the zebra mussels, are an invasive species in the Great Lakes, having been transplanted in the ballast water of ships that plied both the Great Lakes and other waters in the world. Over the past few decades they have been spreading through the Lakes, starting in large colonies in shallow waters, but clearly now also extending into the deeper waters. There are lots of interesting questions that immediately spring to mind. For instance: As we moved across the lake bottom, there are small patches here and there where the mussels hadn’t settled — what were those? Are the mussels not there yet, were they cleared away somehow, or is there something different about those patches? How far into the depths do the colonies extend? Are the depths they are reaching simply growing with time, or correlated with other environmental aspects of the lake (like temperature, lake currents, water chemistry, or other suspensions in the water)? Those are questions for another day, and a future expedition and a future team. As dutiful observers of Nature, we record our findings and the conditions under which we made them, together with thoughts we have, and report them to our scientific colleagues for further consideration.
Once we were on the bottom, we started our run. The captain revved up the Neeskay and we started trundling along our planned transect at about 1 knot (1 nautical mile per hour, which is about 1.15 mph = 1.85 km per hour). But as you might guess, it’s not that easy! We wanted the sled to glide over the bottom in contact with the surface. If we were going too fast, the sled started to “fly” from the hydrodynamic forces of the water lifting it like it was an airplane. We knew when we were on the bottom because we would see occasional puffs of silt and dirt, like the cloud we saw when we landed. If we were going too fast and flying, then we never saw any puffs and the mussels were really flying past fast. 🙂 The video below shows about 2 minutes of what flying over the area was like, extracted from the Aquarius video feed.
So for about an hour, all we could do was watch the video screen, occasionally talking with the captain about speeding up or slowing down by a smidgen. The mussels sailed by — endless lakescapes of mussels. Surprisingly, there were often apparent detritus from our civilization that we could see — bars of metal protruding from the lake bottom or other bits of shattered something. In many ways it was surprising, because you have this sense that the lake is vast and there is no possible way that humans could have somehow made their imprint on so much of it that a random trip across the bottom would turn up some artifacts from our civilization. But we have. It is a testament to how much time humans spend on the lake, and how far reaching our influence likely is.
Eventually, we decided to haul the sled up, clean it off, and preserve any samples we found. The ascent was a little slower than the descent because as we hauled it up, we had to separate the video cable and the tow cable. Separating the two was not nearly as straightforward as clipping them together — while the sled is in the water and the cable is under tension, the two cables wind around each other, so as they come out of the water and are separated, all of the twists remain in place! The result is a giant spaghetti ball of cable that you have to manage as the sled ascends. It’s only 70 to 100 meters of spaghetti cable, but it’s a plenty big mess! If you’re watching on the monitor, eventually the sled video can see us up through the water as it ascends, a distorted fun house view of the team, peering eagerly into the water to see what secrets had been pulled up from the depths.As the sled emerges from the water, there is a flood of mud that is released as water sheets off of it, but we move it aboard and finally it is laid down on the deck. What happens next is a burst of activity: every member of the team moving to do something to get us ready for the next transect. The captain turns the boat and heads to our next drop point. A group grabs the spaghetti ball and takes over an entire side of the Neeskay to untangle it and lay it out, untangled, for the next drop. A cadre of people with cameras and smartphones are taking pictures of everything, documenting what is going on. And the sled itself is surrounded by a pack of the Aquarius team, shoulder to shoulder, digging in to clean the sled and preserve the recovered samples. The philosophy of the sled clean-off stage is simple: keep everything for later. Set aside interesting stuff for careful consideration later.
There is a lot of mud. Some of it we spray off, carefully sifting through it for anything that was surrounded by the gooey stuff. The cleaning teams grabs great gobs of the stuff and mashes their hands through every little bit of it, looking for anything small and solid. We find rocks, we find clear bits of metallic somethings. We keep it all, and toss it in big 5 gallon buckets. The buckets are marked with the day of the expedition, and the transect that we made, so when we get back to the lab we’ll know where the samples came from. We find stuff stuck to the magnets — all the magnets — so we pull it off, and stick it in the buckets. Every now and then we find a mussel; what do you do with that? You see if it sticks to a magnet! If it sticks, you keep it — it probably has eaten something metallic (possibly a meteorite fragment) and we want to know what it is! If it doesn’t stick, we toss it back into the Lake. If something looks particularly interesting, we show it to one of our meteorite experts, who decide to toss it in the general buckets, or keep it in a special “oooo interesting” container.The entire clean-up takes 30 to 60 minutes, and by the time we’re done, the spaghetti cable is untangled, and we’re ready to make a second drop. We hook RV Starfall back onto its cable, pivot out over the water, and drop it in for a new run. Wash, rinse, repeat!
But all too soon, you discover the day has wiled itself away. The Sun is heading toward the horizon, you have buckets of samples, thousands of pictures, hard drives full of video, and notes, thoughts, and observations from everyone on the team that need to be collected, collated, read over, pondered, and speculated with.
With the happy melancholia that accompanies the end of any adventure, the team looks to shore as the captain turns the bow of the Neeskay to the west, and we begin to steam toward home.
Now, our samples are in the lab. Fall is winding away and winter will be here soon. This is the time for careful lab work and analysis of all the samples we’ve found. There are, perhaps, fragments of our meteorite in the collection. If there are, we will be beyond excited. But if there are not, the samples still represent a treasure trove of knowledge about one small part of Lake Michigan. Contained in those carefully preserved samples is a story, yet to be understood, about the geology and history of human influence in that part of the Lake. We’re going to find out what we can learn from that hard earned haul — truly a treasure, valued in the sweat and joy and mystery of its recovery.
This post is the second of two describing my adventures with the Adler Planetarium’s AQUARIUS team. The first post was here: https://wp.me/p19G0g-LB
You may also enjoy listening to the Adler Planetarium’s podcast series about Aquarius, it is excellent. You can hear them online here: https://www.adlerplanetarium.org/education/far-horizons/aquarius-project-podcast/