Trip 9 - Southwest
Like Trip 4, with part of the focus being on geology, and Trip 8, with part of the focus being on physics, Trip 9 has a topic tangential to biology as one of its foci: astronomy. Outer-space is not that far-removed from the lives of living things here on earth. If it were not for one particular space object, the sun, there would not be life on earth as we know it. There are other space objects that can have a direct impact on earth, and some that can have a more indirect effect, but an effect all the same. And you can only go so far back in the study of evolution before you have to start thinking about the origins of the universe. Finally, there is a very real possibility that life exists on other planets. So this trip will explore astronomy as it relates to biology, among other topics.
The trip begins in New Mexico at an astronomy observatory called the Very Large Array (VLA). Though sometimes called a telescope, it is not what the general public would think of as a telescope. It is actually an array of 27 large dishes that collect radio waves. Radio waves are just one type of radiation coming to earth from space, and this array is designed specifically to collect those waves. As with any kind of telescope on the trip, the purpose is to understand the contributions it has made, and is trying to make, to science. As its appearance in the movie "Contact" suggests, the VLA could potentially be useful in the search for extraterrestrial life. (Just to be clear, the use of the VLA in the movie was nonfiction, but the latter part of the film was fiction.)
Moving west into Arizona, the next site shows the direct effect a space object can have on earth. Meteor Crater, also know as the Barringer Meteorite Crater, is the location where a 300,000 ton piece of nickel iron from space plowed into earth, leaving the crater that remains today. This particular impact happened 50,000 years ago but it could happen just as well today.
The next stop is one that is related to both space exploration and biology. Biosphere 2, so named because the earth is considered Biosphere 1, was designed to be a self-contained ecosystem. If it could work without any input from the earth outside, it could make habitation on the moon or Mars possible. While it was not exactly successful in being completely self-contained, it is still a good resource for learning about how ecosystems work.
The third Arizona stop brings us to the outskirts of Tucson and Saguaro National Park. Besides astronomy, one of the main foci of Trip 9 is on desert environments and organisms. Saguaro National Park is a showcase for one of four major desert types in the U.S., the sonoran desert.
Next, it's back to New Mexico to White Sands National Monument. Here you'll experience the largest field of gypsum sand dunes in the world. The ways in which organisms adapt to this shifting environment will be explored.
Carlsbad Caverns, the next stop on the trip, is a national park with one of the largest known cave systems in the country. This is yet another environment that is foreign to most humans in which organisms must have adaptations different from many of those we see on a regular basis.
The trip drops into Texas for the next stop, at McDonald Observatory. Home to more traditional telescopes than the VLA, here we will explore the contributions made to science by these great tools.
The final, and perhaps grandest, stop of Trip 9 is at Big Bend National Park. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert, we round out the four major desert types after visiting the Mojave and Great Basin deserts in Trip 7 and the Sonoran Desert earlier in this trip. But this park is not all desert. Bordering the Rio Grande, there are riparian habitats to experience. There are also mountains in the heart of the park rising high enough to provide forested environments for the organisms living there. Because of these factors and its geographical location, Big Bend is actually the most diverse national park for bird species, so birds will be a focus here.