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BYU grad is expert on fire, ice

She's going to Antarctic to collect meteorites

OREM — Searing hot lava in the summer. Frigid pieces of the moon and Mars in the winter. Orem High graduate and planetary scientist Jani Radebaugh is splitting her year between fire and ice.

In August, she studied flowing lava in Hawaii with Brigham Young University students. And on Thursday she embarked on the first leg of a seven-week expedition to collect meteorites in icy Antarctica.

She has learned to sniff out trouble on multiple trips to Kilauea, an active Hawaiian volcano.

"I can smell my boots melting when it gets too hot," she said. "If you get smoky boots, get out."

Meteorite hunting in Antarctica is just the opposite — "Now I want my toes to be nice and toasty," Radebaugh said — and will require safety training in New Zealand this weekend and at a base camp in Antarctica before the search for space objects begins.

"It's amazing to think the two are even related, but planetary science is about extremes," she said. "The moon reaches a couple hundred degrees on one side while it's freezing cold on the other side. When trying to understand those extremes we look for extreme environments on Earth."

Extraterrestrial rocks stand out against the background in the Antarctic, known as the whitest place on earth. Last year, the annual Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) collected 1,230 chunks of planets or asteroids. Radebaugh is one of 15 scientists and mountaineers selected for the 2005-06 ANSMET expedition, which is expected to gather a similar number of meteorites for other scientists around the world, NASA, the Smithsonian and the National Science Foundation.

"It's amazing to be involved in planetary science because in the last 10 years, the meteorite search program has been very successful," Radebaugh said. "It's boosted our knowledge of how the universe was formed and what elements make up the solar system. It feels like the golden age of planetary science."

ANSMET discoveries have proved that meteorites that reach Earth include pieces of the moon and Mars — not just bits of asteroids. Study of an ANSMET specimen found trapped gases identical to those found on Mars by the Viking landers, and similar rocks are giving scientists a window to the geology of Mars.

Radebaugh believes Kilauea is another window to Martian geology. She is studying volcanoes on the Mars moon Io and needs a way to figure out lava temperatures.

"Looking at volcanoes in outer space, it's really hard to figure out temperatures," she said. "On this trip, we could actually walk up and poke something into the lava and take temperatures. Then we used video to tape what we were looking at. It helped us understand what it's like to do measurements in outer space with images."

Getting to Hawaii is pretty straightforward. Antarctica is a different matter. Radebaugh flew to Los Angeles on Thursday. The next stop is New Zealand, where she'll stock up on cold weather gear and food at a warehouse in Christchurch. After a few days, the group will load everything onto an LC-130 cargo plane for the flight to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where they will undergo survival training and a shakedown — practice with tents, stoves and other essential gear.

Finally, the LC-130 will take the scientists farther toward the South Pole, where it will land on skis on the ice. The expedition will spend five weeks searching for meteorites on snowmobiles and sleds, returning in late January.

Radebaugh is the granddaughter of Ruth and Nathan Hale, founders of Utah's Hale Center theaters, and will return home to work as a geology professor at BYU next fall. She earned a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy and a master's in geology at BYU. She recently completed a doctorate in planetary science at the University of Arizona.

She hesitated only briefly when she accepted the invitation to Antarctica because she knew it would be difficult. Now she's looking forward to adopting the diet of those in the Antarctica. The diet is necessary in an environment where temperatures hover around minus-30 degrees.

"I'm excited to eat all the butter and chocolate I want," Radebaugh said. "We'll need to eat 10 bars of chocolate a day because we need as much energy as can to stay warm."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com