Rock Nerds in Space

…otherwise known as “that time I got to write a sci-fi short for my module essay.” This piece was written for Dr. Bodner’s assignment, but I had enough fun with it that I figured I’d go ahead and post it here, too. The assignment was to write a first-person narrative detailing some element of human/environmental interaction, using information we learned from our own volcanic adventures in Naples. So of course, being me, I had to figure out how to work space into the equation.


My name is Marta Camino, and I am having a somewhat disorienting morning. My comlink just woke me up with a news alert: Mount Vesuvius is in the middle of a spectacular eruption, and because I’m more than 140 million miles away, there’s even less that I can do about it than usual.

On any other day, I’d tell you I was living the dream – though the dream in question is a little peculiar. I’m currently working at the Tharsis Montes research station on Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system. Never thought I’d go for a job posting on Mars, but the new antimatter drives they came out with a few years back have cut travel time to less than a week, and adjusting to work in a spacesuit isn’t so difficult when you’re already used to the heavy protective gear you need to take lava samples back on Earth. I was accustomed to extreme environments, having worked on high-altitude sites in the Andes and cold-weather conditions on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica, and when I was offered the chance to be part of the first Martian volcanological survey, how could I say no?

The main difference between the volcanoes on Mars and Earth is their size. Volcanoes here in the Tharsis region are 10 to 100 times larger than those anywhere on Earth. Olympus Mons in particular is a study in mind-boggling scale: its shield-like base is the size of Arizona, and it could comfortably fit Mauna Loa, Earth’s largest volcano, inside itself more than 100 times. Olympus Mons is not active at the moment, which is good news for us. Martian lava flows are long-lasting and infinitely larger than anything found on Earth, due to their higher eruption rates and the planet’s lower surface gravity. One lava field in this region is roughly the size of Oregon, and was created over the course of only a few weeks!

Another reason for the massive size of Martian volcanoes is because plate tectonics on Mars don’t match those on Earth. Hot spots on Earth remain stationary while crustal plates are constantly on the move above them, leading to chains of volcanic activity like the one that formed the Hawaiian Islands. As the plate moves over the hotspot, old volcanoes become extinct while new ones are formed in front of them. This means the lava is distributed between a number of volcanoes rather than just one. Here on Mars, however, the planet’s crust remains stationary, which means that the lava has a chance to pile up on itself to form a single, unbelievably huge volcano. Olympus Mons is so big that it’s impossible to see its whole form from the planet’s surface, even from beyond the horizon. The best way to appreciate it is from orbit: here on its flank the gradual slope is deceptive, and seems like a shallow but somehow endless hill rising steadily into the orange sky.

We’ve spent close to a year taking measurements and collecting data on the volcano’s massive slopes. It’s thrilling to be among the first people to geologically date the basalt deposits and map the flow patterns of lava channels on another world, but it’s also exhausting work. After months of recycled air and freeze-dried protein bars and fine red dust that gets into everything, I have to confess that I’m about ready to head home. Everybody is, to be honest. Living and working with the same group in close quarters and a high-stress environment is enough to
drain even the most enthusiastic scientist, given enough time. Our shuttle will get here in two weeks, and here’s the funny thing: I’d planned on taking a vacation in Naples upon my return.

My grandparents were Neapolitan, and I spent quite a few summers in my childhood hiking near Mount Somma with my nonna, a retired geologist herself. She lived well outside the Red Zone around Vesuvius, but always cautioned me to keep an eye on the activity level for future visits.

You don’t want to be here when the mountain finally goes up again, cara mia, she used to tell me, only half-joking. If the pyroclastic flow doesn’t get you, the traffic here certainly will.

I wasn’t so sure. So long as I was observing from a safe distance, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see a genuine Plinian-style eruption at the site that gave it its name. The atomic-looking ash cloud would have been a sight to behold. And now that regulations were stricter (and actually enforced – a genuine miracle in Italy) regarding construction near the volcano’s base, many of my moral qualms had been rendered obsolete. Far fewer people were likely to get caught in the inevitable blast of boiling ash and gases than in the infamous eruption that froze Pompeii and Hercolano in time.

Nonetheless, any eruption will mean the possibility of serious damage in Naples all the same. I’m torn between distress over the thought of all the property damage and personal injury that is undoubtedly happening right now, and a peculiar breed of warped, giddy glee only volcanologists and demolition experts can truly understand. It looks like I’m going to have to figure out some new travel plans very shortly: trying to clean up an entire city post- volcano is going to take a while.

I’m jerked out of my thoughts by a frantic knocking at the door. I lean out of my bunk and whack the button beside the doorframe to allow entry. My partner Jackson barrels in, grinning and out of breath.

“Oh, good, you’re awake. Did you hear?”

“Yeah. I can’t even believe –”

“Come on, a bunch of us have got a feed going in the common room. There’s the usual transmission delay, but it’s as close to a livestream as we can get.”

I pull on a jacket and follow Jackson down the hall. The team has a projection grid set up in the common area, and nearly a dozen of my colleagues are piled on the couches and floor, watching a three-dimensional rendering of the exploding mountain overlaid by data streams provided by the Pan-European Geological Survey. The ash cloud is still rising, a dark atmospheric plume now the height of the volcano itself and continuing to grow before our eyes.

“I’m trying not to take this personally,” one of my teammates says, “but did this thing really have to erupt when some of Earth’s leading volcanologists are literally as far away from it as we could possibly get?”

The group laughs. We’ve all been varying degrees of homesick for the past several weeks, and tensions have nearly reached their breaking point on several occasions. What’s funny is that this international crew would be scrambling over one another if we’d been back on Earth today, probably offering contradictory advice and vying for the greatest number of sound bites in the media spotlight. But here, insulated from the point of interest by millions of miles of space, what would have normally resulted in months of academic sniping is bringing us together.

The newsfeed has reported zero casualties so far. As luck would have it, prevailing winds have pushed the ash fall towards the side of the mountain with the lowest population density. The evacuation routes installed two decades ago have proved to be remarkably efficient, and the engineers and scientific advisors will be receiving commendations for their work. A round of applause goes up from the team when one of Tanaka’s postdoc mentors is referenced as a hero whose foresight helped save many lives across the city.

“Hang on,” says Jackson. “I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

I’ll rearrange those travel plans later. I might be tired, far from home, and still covered in a layer of red dust, but for now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

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