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Bear huntin' on Mars

Miles O'Brien
Miles O'Brien at the Haughton-Mars Project base camp  


CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether are in Devon Island, Canada, where NASA and other researchers are taking part in The Haughton-Mars Project, a NASA-led program researching the Haughton impact crater in the Canadian high arctic. The area is said to be similar to Mars and may give insights into the possibilities of living in the extreme environment of the red planet. CNN.com will offer webcast from Devon Island on Friday, July 20, at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 18, 2001, DEVON ISLAND -- Ever since I got here and took my polar bear protection class I have wanted to lay eyes on one of the great white beasts of the Great White North. But not too closely, thank you.

So when I heard a helicopter was on the way, I figured this was my big chance. Can you think of a safer place for a bear viewing?

Pilot Mike Koloff flew his Jet Ranger from Calgary (17 hours logged over 3 days, give or take, for weather). He was hired to offer aerial support to Camp Mars, so I got me a ticket to ride. The Monarch of Mars, Pascal Lee, offered to show me some terrain that rocks in a Mars kinda' way.

We flew north toward the coast carrying a full load. The cook, Mark Webb, and the deputy camp manager, Joe Amarualik, joined me in the back. They were on a fishing expedition for char -- an Arctic Circle salmon derivative. If they did well, we would eat like kings tonight.

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CNN's Miles O'Brien has a look at a possible faster way to Mars (June 17)

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We dropped them off and flew on, flying with the door off and looking for Mars in all the right places. We saw valleys, gullies and channels that looked as if they had been torn from the Mars Global Surveyor photo album. Melting ice sheets thousands of years ago formed the spider-like valleys on Devon.

Lee believes that might be what carved the corresponding features on Mars, which brings me to his Mars theory -- he is not so sure that Mars was once warm and wet, as so many scientists contend. Lee believes the martian weather has always been cold, but the planet itself was warm. The combination makes for a lot of ice, and a lot of ice melt, and that might have left the scars that we see on Mars today.

We marveled at this oddly beautiful place, landed beside a Yosemite-class waterfall and dialed the GPS to MARS. No bear. Nada.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Joe and Mark were having an arctic adventure. Mark is a high school science teacher from Austin, Texas. The only thing he knows about ice is how good it is at keeping beer cold. So when he and Joe got on an ice floe to see if they could coax a char onto their hook, he was not prepared for its departure from shore. Before they noticed, the pair was about 12 yards out to sea. No way to jump.

Joe jumped on another chunk of ice so small that, when he beckoned Mark to join him, Mark decided he would take his chances on the bigger piece. Seeing this, Joe pretended Mark was a fish, tossing him some fishing line and reeling him in.

Good thing someone knows what to do when that happens. Maybe ice floe training should become a part of the camp indoctrination, right after the bear course.

Oh, you already know that I did not see a bear on this adventure -- a good journalist never buries the lead -- but the next people to fly did, and lived to brag about.

I can hardly bear it.

In addition to his work covering space for CNN, Miles will be a prime-time anchor on the new CNN Headline News when it premieres on August 6.







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