Dr. Alberto Behar
Dr. Alberto Behar

Behar serves as JPL's chief engineer on the Antarctic Ice Borehole Probe Project.

Behar and his colleagues spent three months in subzero temperatures studying the dynamics of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The size of the United States and Mexico combined, the Antarctic ice sheet may hold a gold mine of information, including the mechanisms by which ice flows from this area to the oceans. Studies show that significant changes in glacier melting and flow rates could considerably impact sea levels and global warming.

The science team used an ice probe, equipped with lights and two cameras, to capture the first-ever video and still images deep within Antarctic ice streams. This project also serves as a stepping-stone in the development of technology capable of withstanding extreme ice and liquid environments on Earth and other planets.

Q: What was the purpose of your team's project in Antarctica?
A: We went to find out the dynamics and stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet. One way in which to do this is to study the fast-moving areas, the ice streams, and understand their dynamics. What sets their speed, causes them to flow, makes them stop? It's not very well understood yet.

Q: What are some of the things this investigation revealed or confirmed?
A: We observed what appeared to be a basal water system below the ice, or series of channels that contain water. They think these aid in the flow of ice streams, but they're not sure. It was calculated that, if this water system existed, a basal gap from the ground to the base of the stream would measure in the millimeter range. It was astounding when the probe plunged through 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) of water at the base of the stream.

Another thing was that the researchers expected to find debris in the ice no higher than 2 meters (nearly 7 feet) off the base of the ice stream. We actually found debris 26 meters (85 feet) off the base.

We also saw debris layers in the ice that are still to be understood.

Q: Why are these findings so important?
A: Because we're seeing things we didn't expect to find. It's eye-opening data. It opens up a whole new part to this study.

Q: Are there aspects of this project that can be applied to space exploration?
A: Some of these things are exactly what we'd like to do at Europa [one of Jupiter's moons]. The theory is that Europa is an ice cap with water underneath, similar, in a sense, to the virtual lake we found in Antarctica. Therefore, where we were in West Antarctica is a good place to study techniques and develop some of the needed technology before we send it to Europa.

Q: What kind of conditions were you working and living under?
A: Well, 24-hour sunlight means you're run by the clock. It tells you when to get up, when to work, when to eat lunch, basically everything. We had average temperatures of about -18 C (-0.4 F). We all had our own tents and, at the campsite, we had a communication tent, a galley tent with a kitchen and a recreational tent with showers heated by kerosene. The food was quite varied and rich. I think they find when you're in a hostile environment the food needs to be really good. There wasn't too much to do. You slept; you worked; you ate; there was a video player; some people would go cross-country skiing; or you'd read or just hang out.

Q: What were your biggest challenges?
A: Time, machines and people. Time because we had such a short window and there was only so much time we could be there before the weather started getting really bad. In that time we wanted to drill as many holes as possible. So, the machines were running nonstop, three eight-hour shifts per day. Also, Antarctica's not a place to get in a fight with somebody. So, you have to learn how to work with others in a stressful environment. It stretches you, and that's good.

Q: What's the next step in this investigation?
A: We want to continue developing the technology and one of our prime interests is to look for biology. The next time we go, we'll probably have a sensor on the probe that detects biology.

Q: Did you ever imagine yourself working in Antarctica?
A: No. It was always just a place on the map, somewhere I wanted to go. For me, this is the ideal way to go.

Q: Did you always want to work in the space industry when you were younger?
A: When I was real little I wanted to be an astronaut. It was around the Apollo days. Then I forgot about that for a while. When I was an undergraduate in college, I was looking for a goal and a good place to work. NASA just seemed to fit that.

Q: What kind of advice would you offer to kids who want jobs like yours?
A: Always be interested in what you like. Pursue it, even if others say there's something better out there. If you really like it you're going to be good at it and that's what's going to lead to your success.