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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Jessica Rockeman's blog

Bringing Mars a Little Closer to North Dakota: An Upcoming Online Exhibit Explores North Dakota’s Night Sky

Today’s post is going to be about Mars. I’m letting you know that ahead of time, because in the past, people have needlessly freaked out when you surprised them War of the Worlds style.

H.G. Wells will do that to people.

Our agency is developing an online exhibit titled ND Night Sky. I’m taking the lead on developing this amazing project, which fits perfectly with my lifetime obsession of geeking out over anything “Space.” In one part of this exhibit, you’ll learn why Mars and North Dakota make great research buddies. In anticipation of seeing the exhibit, here are four facts about our planetary neighbor that will get you cool points.

1. Mars is tiny but feisty
In our solar system, Mercury is the only planet smaller than Mars. And while the atmosphere on Venus went into a runaway greenhouse effect, the atmosphere on Mars gave up. In what would be considered the blink of an eye in planetary timescales, Mars lost its atmosphere, rusted, and freeze-dried.

Wet to dry Mars animation

It’s OK Mars. If it makes you feel any better, we are constantly having asteroids thrown at us. Image source: NASA

2. Mars is the ultimate lonely planet destination
Mars is no place for the timid. What isn’t covered in ice is rugged, arid, rocky terrain. Mars is home to the solar system’s largest volcano and the deepest canyon. The extreme, frozen desert weather makes it the ultimate lonely planet destination orbiting the sun.

Olympus Mons, Mars

Olympus Mons, Mars. This volcano is 374mi/624km in diameter.  Or to put it another way, Olympus Mons is a volcano approximately the size of the state of Arizona. Image source: NASA

3. The trouble with triples-or why you can’t have a swimming pool on Mars
Having a swimming pool on Mars would be very tricky because of the low atmospheric pressure (1% of Earth’s), combined with the low temperatures, (a balmy summer day on the equator of Mars is still -20F) would cause the liquid water in your pool to simultaneously freeze and boil at the same time.

Your pool on the Martian surface would be a big hole with vapor or ice. We call this the “triple point” in chemistry.

The three states of matter

Three states of matter for the price of one. Neat!

4. Nice Mars factoids, but what does it have to do with North Dakota?
Glad you asked. The tractors that go to the U.S. Antarctic Program research stations in Antarctica? Those are made in Fargo. The Inflatable Lunar Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) is underway at University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. You can see the NDX-1 Mars Prototype suit on display at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. And the first crops tested on the International Space Station were arabidopsis and dwarf wheat.

You thought that North Dakota was isolated, rocky, and cold. Turns out, it just might be some of the best training for living on Mars.

NDX-1 prototype spacesuit

See the NDX-1 prototype spacesuit at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck, ND. NDX-2 is currently being developed at UND in Grand Forks, ND. Space fashion!

Coming soon to an internet near you!
A portion of this ND Night Sky exhibit will highlight North Dakota’s contributions to engineering, technology, and exploration and how they relate to Mars. Why? Because the sort of innovation that gets the robots (and someday humans) to Mars will have massive implications for the rest of us on Earth.

There’s much more to this exhibit than Mars. We’ll look at some Native American ties to the night sky, navigation, meteorites, and ND night sky activities you can do on any clear night. Watch for an opening date for this online exhibit.

Jessica holding a guinea pig with a space poster in the background

Pro tip: If you’re going to try and be “too cool to smile,” it helps if you don’t pose in front of your poster of the solar system while holding your guinea pig. I work for the State Historical Society in Bismarck by day and am old enough to know better than to stay up too late looking at the night sky but still do it anyway.

How to Make a Paleontology Episode

I’ll start by wishing you a very happy 2015! I hope that you had a marvelous time at the November 2, 2014, grand opening. If you missed it, plan on stopping by the North Dakota Heritage Center very soon because the exhibits are choice, the food is excellent, it’s warm, and there is ample available parking.

ND Heritage Center. Park Here. Enter Here for Fun Times.

The start of a new year means we can get into full mode making more short film episodes, some about paleontology in collaboration with the North Dakota Geologic Survey team. So far, we’ve made videos about a public dig where a crocodile skeleton was excavated, digs at Pembina and Medora, and the cannonball concretions and petrified tree which can be found on the plaza.

Videos have a lot of competition these days, often in the form of cats doing anything online. In the olden days, making an educational video was easy. You recorded a narrator, stuck in a few shots of old pictures, then edited and covered the gaps with a piano piece. The whole affair took about 20 minutes over a cup of coffee.

Not anymore.

So what, you may be wondering, do we all do to make it happen?

As one example, we filmed sixteen large boulders (called Cannonball concretions) being moved to specific areas on the Pembina River Plaza at the east entrance to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Behind the scenes, someone had to coordinate with a construction company and find some large machinery to use for a couple of days. Then someone had to locate two moving crews from south of Fargo and get them out to Lake Hammond, near Mandan. Three paleontologists were involved in the move, and someone had to coordinate a video camera. While all this was going on, I was filming, tethered between being in the way and not falling over.  

Jeff & Becky Catching a Cannonball

After the filming, I wrote the script. If that seems a bit backwards to write the script last instead of first, that’s because it is. But it sometimes works better to write after you’ve witnessed everything that happens to put an event in place.

A lot of people ask if these video episodes are set up. I promise you, here and now, they are not. We have stood in rainstorms, destroyed knees, driven into worlds far from any idea of roads, fallen off of large boulders with a camera in hand, and we don’t pull over for anything except fuel. We tend to take filming fairly seriously.

But not half as seriously as what it takes to edit all the clips, the audio, make the sound effects, create the arty segments, and find music for a show from start to finish. My goal is to show a high amount of science and “cool” within a relatively low budget. That’s the main reason why our channel’s videos don’t look like any other paleontological videos out there. Everybody works so amazingly hard to make something great.

Ultimately the fossil digging season is over, all production is completed, we read through the script to make sure it’s not all in Dutch, and Paleontologist Becky Barnes fixes any errors. In the normal world, the credits at the end of a program roll for about five seconds, whereas the ones we place at the end of our paleontology episodes make you feel as though you’ve been watching Ben-Hur (1959).  The lengthy list of people either involved behind the scenes or on camera is often on an epic level. We finish editing the last snippets of footage in the Heritage Center space that we’ve made into a studio. And that would be the part where every normal human being would go home and relax. So, of course, that is when we start planning for next season’s films.

I love the volume of caffeine we go through and the stamina out on the fossil digs. And I love the energy of people who ask what the next episode will be and the way people positively react when shown the films we worked so hard to make. Good luck getting that sort of creative buzz watching a cat play the piano!

Guest Blogger: Jessica Rockeman

Jessica RockemanJessica Rockeman is a New Media Specialist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Her duties include web, graphics, print, ND Studies materials, film and photography. She can often be spotted at the museum with a camera.