NASA's Rubber Duckies

They make climate-change research so much fun
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They make climate-change research so much fun

NASA research propelled technology in the 20th century — computers, jet propulsion, and even dehydrated food either came from or only reached wide use after the agency helped develop them for the space program. If their latest experiment follows suit, we can expect to see a lot of rubber duckies in the latter half of 21st century.

To figure out whether meltwater tunneling through Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier makes it into Baffin Bay, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab decided to deploy 90 rubber ducks on the surface streams of the glacier. The ducks are labeled with an email address and the words "science experiment" and "reward" written in English, Danish, and native Inuit languages.

The big hope is that the ducks will make their way through the moulins and channels inside the glacier and out to the sea. Fishermen will then find the ducks and contact NASA, helping determine the flow of water within the Jakobshavn Glacier and how much climate change affects the region.

So far, no one has called looking for their rubber-duck ransom. But scientists are still confident in giving the low-tech experiment a chance; after all, the high-tech, satellite-linked probe NASA used before resorting to rubber ducks failed miserably.

"We're a little frustrated right now," said Seelye Martin, the program manager for NASA's Earth sciences division. "The water has to go somewhere but we don't know where."

I hope the experiment succeeds, because personally, I'm looking forward to a future where rubber ducks are the technological centerpiece of our daily lives. Examples:

With Friends: "Hey dude — just rubber-duck me in the A.M., OK?"

Dating: "So...can I rubber-duck you some time?"

Survival: "Experts say the lost hiker might've lived had he brought his rubber duck with him."

Sweet.

— Ted Alvarez

NASA dispatches rubber ducks for science (Discovery)