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A Day in the Mojave Looking for Blueprints

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Off a blood-red road that bleeds away from the small driver's-respite town of Baker in the middle of the Mojave desert--a bizarre little town that boasts an Alien Fresh Jerky tuck-shop and the Mad Greek restaurant, eye-popping in a dazzling skirt of chalk-white ancient-Greek replica statues--a narrow dirt trail winds into the desert. It's easily missed. Without prior knowledge of the trail's existence, there would be no need to scan the roadside for a fleeting glimpse of it.

Once found, the trail snakes over a rough carpet of desert terrain that only a sturdy 4-wheel SUV--a fifteen year-old Toyota 4Runner, for instance, owned by a German videographer--can pass over: wide craters and hollowed tire-tracks and scattered cholla cacti with their murderously-spiny detachable arms. After a mile or so, the trail levels onto a slippery soft-sandy plateau before buffering up against a door-wedge of sand too high for the 4Runner to mount.

"Here's where we get out," said Jess Pelaez, khaki clad with wavy red hair squashed beneath a blue bandana.

"You'll probably need water," warned Alex Mewis, the owner of the Toyota 4Runner, quiet, taciturn - a perfect foil for Pelaez's chatterbox sidekick. Mewis locked the doors and headed, camera in hand, towards the ridge of sand. "We'll be gone a few hours, at least," he added.

"What we're doing today is scouting for a suitable location in the desert that will suit all of the scientists involved with Blueprint Earth - geologists, hydrologists, biologists and meteorologists," explained Pelaez earlier that day en-route from Los Angeles to the Mojave - Pelaez is Blueprint Earth's chief executive officer. "We need somewhere with water, so that life can be more easily sustained there."

Blueprint Earth is an organization with lofty ambitions. Their goal is to take snapshots of various environments around the globe with the intention of recreating them in artificial surroundings, like a warehouse - eventually perhaps, the moon. The process is outwardly simple: an army of scientists, researchers and students will spend a couple of months at each location studying and cataloging the various components of the environment before heading back to the lab to process the findings. Once satisfied with the results, they will then go about recreating the same environment within the confines of a warehouse: all rocks, plants, water supplies, even wildlife - everything that comprised the original natural biosphere.

Easier said than done.

The Mojave is Blueprint Earth's intended first location--a sort of environmental guinea pig--and was chosen for two reasons: its proximity to Blueprint Earth's hub in Los Angeles, and because of extensive research already conducted in this desert region - work that should simplify one aspect of Blueprint Earth's efforts to rebuild an artificial desert. For there is another pivotal problem that could make or break their efforts to get the project off the ground: their ability to replicate as accurately as possible the complex life-giving power of solar energy.

According to Daniel Konopka, vice president of Blueprint Earth, the trick will be in shaping the emission spectrum of the artificial energy source to closely match the sun.

"Accurately simulating the natural UV and visible spectra indoors is a real challenge," said Konopka. "The best approach will ultimately depend upon the expertise of those involved in the project, in addition to changes in the consumer technology over the next 1-3 years.

Konopka added: "The field of lighting technology is changing so rapidly right now that large LED panels may be a viable alternative. The advantage of their use would be in scalability, the ability to electronically modulate the emission spectrum instead of utilizing expensive filters, and likely, expense."

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Setting out into the desert, the 4Runner left behind, the narrow valley floor is festooned with foul-tasting mineral deposits atop six-million-year-old volcanic rocks like black-painted foam movie props. Bleached-white animal bone fragments are peppered with hairy cougar droppings. Looming high both sides, the ravine walls are a haphazard jigsaw puzzle of multicolored rock (evidence of seismic activity many, many moons ago). In the distance, a giant cinder-cone (a giant blob of volcanic debris) sits against the horizon.

About an hour in, however, and the ravine forks into two much narrower trails. The one on the right is as parched as the route already taken. The one on the left is as green as a cottage garden.

"Now this is more like it," said Pelaez, peering into a shallow pool of greenish-looking water, no larger than a giant footprint. "Look - look at the tadpoles. There's hundreds of them."

Along the left fork, underwater springs feed a rich bed of grasses, wiry bushes and small pools in which thousands of little red-spotted toad tadpoles wriggle around. "This tadpole even has legs," said Pelaez, as Mewis submerged the video camera for an Attenborough-esque nature shot.

Eventually, the ravine walls widen. Pelaez pointed to an area about a kilometer square that takes in the green valley floor, the small tadpole-infested water pools, the craggy walls and the lava deposits that have left a rocky sea of volcanic debris draped over the higher plains. "This is perfect. This is exactly what I was looking for - something for all the different scientists who will be working here," said Pelaez.

Finding a site diverse enough to satisfy a variety of scientific fields has proven relatively easy. What might prove problematic is persuading the scientists from each of these fields to work together on the venture. According to Pelaez, scientists with a more formal scientific background--one that eschews universality over specificity--aren't always the first to stand back and look at the larger components of a problem.

According to Debra Hughson, National Park Service's Science Advisor for the Mojave National Preserve, the secret to a successful operation will be in the planning.

"Organization is always a challenge, especially when you need people to do specific things in service of a greater goal," said Hughson. "I find that things come together best in an organic fashion."

Hughson is a hydrologist at heart, and she has spent years studying at length the underground springs that pulse through the Mojave. When the Blueprint Earth team were scouting for a suitable location, Hughson pointed them towards the site near Baker. She said that when the real field-work gets underway--next March is the anticipated launch date--she would be keen to lend a hand: "this has the potential to be a hugely important project," Hughson said.

Already drafted in to help with the project are students from the California State University System. Other schools around Los Angeles are currently being brought into the fold, too. When March rolls around, Laura Konopka, a Blueprint Earth board member, will be tasked with the role of helping to organize the scores of grad, undergrad, high school and middle school students that are expected to play a role, however small and however observational.

"Cal State is working on an agreement whereby we'll be working together. This will provide us with a load of grad student worker bees, but it will provide them with the opportunity to work with our lead scientists out in the field. They'll be helping us to make sure that we collect the data consistently and correctly," said Konopka.

For students unable to make it out into the field, Konopka is hoping that Blueprint Earth can provide online resources that enable students to connect with the onsite work.

"We hoping to have a blog that students can follow. And we're also hoping that students will be able to Skype chat with the scientists while they're out in the Mojave," said Konopka.

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It's dark when Pelaez and Mewis return to her little cottage near South Pasadena in Los Angeles, which she shares with her husband, Carlos, and their menagerie of dogs and cats and friends. Blueprint Earth is Pelaez's brainchild, but her husband has been along for the ride the whole way - as a business executive, he provides the more hard-headed financial grounding to the loftier dreams of his wife.

Not that it prevents Carlos Pelaez from getting enthused about the project, too: "So we've got a site finalized?" he said, as the team swept in through the front door into a room chock-full of humans and high-spirited animals - a sort of veterinary waiting room for the terminally healthy.

With one major hurdle cleared, however, there comes another: funding. But Jess Pelaez is optimistic that they will reach the target of $100,000 to start the ball rolling next March.

"Not only do we have over 60 individual donors just shy of two weeks into the campaign, we also have our first major donation on the table," said Pelaez. "It's no surprise that a project as exciting and ambitious as Blueprint Earth is generating interest from the right kind of people - the ones who want to see even more discoveries in our future."