November 20th 2012

View towards Mount FitzRoy in Southern Patagonia
by Jonathan Hudston The Wayfarers’ new walking vacation in Patagonia promises to be an out-of-this-world experience. Not just because Patagonia is so marvelous, but also because it’s like Mars.
 
Yes, the planet Mars. To look at, there are some striking similarities between Mars and Patagonia, caused by volcanoes and glaciers.
 
It’s even been suggested that parts of Patagonia could be used to train astronauts for future expeditions to Mars.
Fig. 1. Landsat image of study area. Numbers refer to the following images (Fig. 2, Fig. 4, Fig. 5, Fig. 7, Fig. 8, Fig. 9, Fig. 10 and Fig. 11). Landsat ETM+ mosaic obtained from http://zulu.ssc.nasa.gov/mrsid/ (courtesy of NASA).
The idea's put forward by Italian academic Andrea Pacifici, writing recently in the journal Planetary and Space Science (Vol 57, pages 571-578, paywalled). Andrea’s piece is called ‘The Argentinian Patagonia and the Martian landscape’.
 
According to a note, the article was funded by the Italian Space Agency. It’s fun to think of Italians visiting the moon… or any of the planets… which, after all, we mostly know by their Latin names (like Mars).
 
Anyway, Andrea’s essay concentrates on the Santa Cruz region of Patagonia, as explored by Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy during the historic voyages of the Beagle between 1831 and 1836. On Day 3 of The Wayfarers’ walk we’ll see ‘ever-wider views of Mount FitzRoy and its glacier’. The mountain is named after Robert Fitzroy, who was Captain of the Beagle and a talented surveyor. In 1836, FitzRoy was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal. He published his account of the Beagle’s voyages in 1839. Darwin’s book about zoological discoveries followed in 1840, then 19 years later came the revolutionary Origin of Species.
 
What awaits The Wayfarers in 2013 and 2014?
 
Patagonia is a place to wander through – and wonder at – and delight not just in the sensations of open space, but also in the structures of outer space.
 
That’s not a merely whimsical assertion. People have been able to learn more about planets by studying parts of the earth that are similar. And Patagonia does indeed appear Mars-like.
 
To quote Andrea: 'Geological processes that have dominated the sculpting of the study area appear to have been similar to those that shaped large areas of the Martian surface (except for impact processes ).
 
'Both the Argentinean Patagonia and Martian surface were affected by basaltic volcanism.
 
'Furthermore, the study area was strongly reworked by glacial and periglacial processes in the past, as is believed to be the case for a large part of the Martian landscape.
 
'Co-occurrence of volcanic and glacial–periglacial activity led to a complex of volcanites and glacial–periglacial deposits that both under and overlay each other.
 
'Similarly, several areas of the Martian surface appear to consist of alternating layers of volcanites and a glacial-drift-like textured regolith.'
 
Fig. 2. Comparison of tabular lava flows. (a) Earth: stratified lavas along a mesa scarp near to the city of Gobernador Gregores (−48.73°N; −70.26°E-QuickBird images mosaic obtained by Google Earth). (b) Mars: layered volcanic rock outcrop on the west flank of Arsia Mons, one of the largest volcanoes of Mars (MOC R1300583).
Andrea suggests that much more geological work could be done in Patagonia.
 
'Analysis of Patagonian lavas and interbedded glacial/proglacial deposits could help us to better understand processes that take place when lavas are emplaced on ice-rich ground.
 
'In the study area, more detailed geomorphologic and sedimentologic analyses of ice, water, and wind related features typical for an arid environment could be performed in order to confirm that these geomorphologic processes operated on rocks similar to those found on Mars…
 
'Further geological field investigations are necessary.'
 
Now, you mustn’t form the impression that The Wayfarers are heading for remote and romantic Patagonia to spend long days conducting those necessary sedimentologic analyses. We’re not.
 
We are going to be walking, and eating Lemon Pie, and sleeping in comfy beds at tranquil lodges.
 
But we are also going to be letting our imaginations roam. And thinking – gloriously - what if?
 
As Andrea writes: 'From the point of view of future Mars missions, the Argentinean Patagonia appears to be of interest to test robotic instruments and human mission’s equipment.
 
'The area is still more important in that respect because of the terrain morphology and rock composition that are similar to those found on the Martian surface.
 
'Moreover, the lack of vegetation, climatic condition, and the existence of wide uninhabited areas speak in favor of the possibility that the region could be suitable to train astronauts for future human expeditions to Mars.'
 
See you there!
  About the Author:   Jonathan Hudston is the editor of George Chapman: Plays and Poems (Penguin). As a boy he remembers being mysteriously fascinated by the Straits of Magellan between mainland South America and Tierra del Fuego.

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