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Martian geography: Golden Roast Hollow and its neighbors.

A favorite local coffee shop beats Starbucks to Mars

by Suzanne Parete-Koon

Mars is cold and barren, with a thin atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide. It has a meager amount of surface water that remains frozen at its poles. It’s no place for a coffee shop.

A more suitable atmosphere for a coffee shop can be found at 825 Melrose Place, on the edge of the University of Tennessee campus. While its physical location may be rather ordinary, the Golden Roast’s metaphysical coordinates are the crossroads of many seemingly uncommon ideas, some of which are literally out of this world. It’s surely one of the very few coffee shops in the world that has a crater on Mars named for it.

Open the front doors of the Golden Roast and you may find two professors in a hot debate about cross-cultural evolution. They steam at one another over mugs of hot black coffee. Their deliberation attracts the attention of some math and journalism students at neighboring tables who steal glances up from their own studies to interject their opinions and join in the melee.

People wander off from their laptops to order fresh-brewed beverages at the bar. Past the espresso bar and cushy paisley upholstered chairs, you find a long green wooden table that looks like it came from a British pub. At the far end of the table, professors from the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department are gathering over espresso and lattés for a meeting. At the near end of the table, a girl with three vampire tattoos on her arm is flipping through a large book of architectural drawings.

Glance up at the wall and you may see a photograph of a small impact crater on the surface of Mars. It’s named Golden Roast Hollow.

Golden Roast barista and customer Niki Bold says, “The Golden Roast provides a space and an atmosphere where you can meet the underpinnings of this town—the indie kids, the smart kids, the professors—they all come here to drink coffee and they all talk.”

There’s a whisper of adventure in the shop’s ambiance and in the coffee, perhaps from owner Alan Zeigel’s past as a dive master and treasure hunter. It was while adventuring in Costa Rica in 1975 that Zeigel first discovered his interest in coffee.

“Their coffee down there is so fresh, and I learned that a little darker roast brings out wonderful flavor,” he says. “I came back to the U.S. and tried to drink coffee, and it just wasn’t the same. I always keep a Costa Rican coffee on hand in the café.”

Since Zeigel opened the Golden Roast in November of 1995, his adventuring has taken a backseat to the coffee business. Zeigel personally opens the shop every morning. He selects several varieties of organic fair-trade coffee from Royal Coffee, a New York-based importer, and roasts the beans himself. Zeigel started carrying fair-trade organic coffees because the students who frequent his café asked for it. The business of fair-trade coffee guarantees the coffee farmers a fair price for their beans and helps them develop and finance healthy ecologically sustainable farming methods.

His coffee gets around. Tomato Head and Preservation Pub serve coffee that comes exclusively from beans roasted by Zeigel. He also supplies Three Rivers Market (once the Food Co-op) on Broadway with nearly 50 pounds of fresh-roasted coffee every week.

Perhaps it’s fitting karma that this former adventurer’s coffee has given him a connection that helped his little café beat the competition to Mars. That connection is Livio Tornabene, a doctoral candidate in geology at UT. Tornabene, whose masters work at the University of Southern Florida focused on the study of impact craters, attracted the attention of UT’s expert on Martian geology, Hap McSween, who invited Tornabene here to conduct his doctoral work. Tornabene has already achieved some status as an expert on the surface of the red planet.

When Mars Rover Spirit crested Husband Hill at the very edge of the Martian Columbia Hill Complex in 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater, Tornabene had been waiting for a chance to name a Martian land feature after his favorite Knoxville coffee shop.

That’s his prerogative; he is one of the many young scientists who decide which Martian rocks and soils NASA’s remote control all-terrain vehicles, Spirit and Opportunity, will examine. The Rovers, which have been exploring the surface of Mars since early 2004, are equipped with a host of digital cameras and spectrometers that allow scientists like Tornabene to determine the composition of the red planet’s surface.

Tornabene spends much of his time in the Golden Roast sifting through his Mars research using his laptop and the café’s wireless Internet connection. 

Born to Italian parents in New York, Tornabene moved with his parents to Coral Springs, Fla. at age 6 and was astonished at the number of stars he could see, far more than in the streetlight-washed night sky of Brooklyn. “I was not like other kids,” he says. “I asked my dad to buy me things like encyclopedias and a telescope. He always taught me a good lesson by making me work to pay for half of them.”

When Tornabene was 10, his mother, Diana, woke in the predawn hours of a brisk December morning and noticed that her eldest son was missing from his bed. She found Tornabene sitting out in the yard wrapped in a quilt staring at the sky. He tried to explain that he was watching the Geminid meteor shower, which peaked after midnight, but she quickly ushered him off to bed, saying that outside at 2 in the morning was no place for a child.

Tornabene’s father, Rosario Tornabene, immigrated to the United States from Gratteri, Italy in 1957. Because of Tornabene’s current work with the Mars Odyssey mission, one of the best examples of the rare Martian ray craters was discovered and named Gratteri after Tornabene’s family’s ancestral home.

Martian ray craters are distinguished by rays of dust and debris that in infrared images appear as dark spokes extending out from the crater’s center. This type of crater is rare on Mars because the planet’s atmosphere slows and disorganizes the jets of fleeing debris that form the rays after a meteor impact creates a crater.

Some of Gratteri’s rays extend for 450 miles. It takes a violent impact to form a ray crater like Gratteri, so violent that debris may have been flung out fast enough to escape the planet’s gravity. The age and type of terrain on which Gratteri sits indicates that crater may be the source of the oldest Mars meteorite, ALH84001. This is the meteorite that landed on Earth and spurred so much debate about whether or not the microscopic tube-like structures contained within it were fossils of ancient Martian bacteria.

Tornabene discovered the crater’s rays when he was sitting in the Golden Roast sifting through the infrared images taken by Mars-orbiting spacecraft, Mars Odyssey.

In one of the images of the Martian Columbia Hills sent back by rover Spirit, Tornabene found a good potential target to name after the Golden Roast.

“I saw a small hollow about 1.5 meters in diameter, probably a small impact crater,” Tornabene recalls. “It had a rocky ring and a sandy center free of cobbles and pebbles, which meant that it would make an excellent soil target. Soil formation is a breakdown process that represents the weathering regime for the region during the time the soil formed, so soils can give important clues about the past climate for a given region.”

The secrets of past climate locked in the soils and rocks of Mars, when decoded by the Rover science teams, have revealed abundant chemical and physical evidence that Mars had flowing water on its surface at some time in its ancient past. Searching for this evidence is like a remote control Easter egg hunt. To find the evidence, the Rovers periodically stop to check soil samples as they journey. Tornabene’s small sandy crater would be one of these periodic checks.

Tornabene’s request to explore the crater and name it Golden Roast was granted by the science team and Spirit rover engineers operating at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Tornabene sequenced the commands that told Spirit’s instruments to focus on three targets in the crater. He named them Grounds, a patch of the sandy soil; Espresso, a dark-toned rock on the edge of the crater; and Cappuccino, a spot picked for centering Spirit’s digital panoramic camera.

It takes on average 20 minutes for a set of commands to transverse the distance between Earth and the rover and, after the rover executes those commands, it takes another 20 minutes for the pictures and data that shows the rover’s progress to get back to Earth. Then the process begins again for the next command. Flushing out Mars’ secrets by remote control is a slow process that requires patience.

Spirit’s data showed that Golden Roast Hollow “consisted of basaltic sands and the target rock Espresso looked like typical plains basalt.”

Typical plains basalt is a gray to black volcanic rock that is common to the geology of many regions of Mars. Here on Earth, basalt is the rock that makes up the crust below our oceans and is a common constituent of volcanoes. (Golden Roast Hollow does not contain the telltale mineral evidence for water, one of the basic elements in coffee.)

Even if Golden Roast Hollow’s rocks are rather ordinary for Mars, the fact that Tornabene can determine their compositions remotely in a café that’s over 100 million miles away from the red planet is rather extraordinary.

Later, in the same general region as Golden Roast Hollow, Spirit’s exploration of a soil sample, named Paso Robles, that was accidentally disturbed by the rover’s wheels revealed a high content of sulfate-salts. This is very clear evidence that there once was liquid water in the area because on Earth those same kinds of sulfate-salts form as the result of evaporation of water.        

There is not enough evidence yet to determine exactly how much water was there, but in a flight of fancy one might imagine that Golden Roast Hollow once sat near the edge of an ancient Martian lake. That’s not a bad location for a primeval Martian coffee shop.

“It’s a fun thing to think about, knowing that there’s a little chunk of Mars named after our store,” says Zeigel. “We beat Starbucks to Mars!” 

Explaining why this coffee shop deserves such an honor, Tornabene says, “I feel at home in this place and the coffee is very good. The Golden Roast is a nexus for people from many different disciplines to connect and share ideas.”

The cross-pollination among regulars at the cafe spans the spectrum from scientist to artist. During conversations with Tornabene at the Golden Roast, Seva, a composer and sound artist, became fascinated with the infrared spectra that Tornabene was analyzing. He saw that he could map the light frequencies from the spectra into sound frequencies. Tornabene gave Seva some spectral data from a set of minerals. Seva has begun the process of converting the spectra into music and sound art. His work will be displayed in an A1 studios Art exhibit later this year.

“To me, it is the perfect example of what a coffee shop should be,” Seva says. “Locally roasted by an expert, comfortable, huge overstuffed chairs, area rugs, nice lamps, aesthetic and thoughtful: today’s papers available for sharing, shelves and shelves of cool books, and ideally located with easy access. I’ve had espresso all over Europe and the U.S., and Alan knows how to do it correctly.”

After Tornabene named the Martian crater Golden Roast Hollow, Zeigel offered him free coffee for a year. Tornabene refused the offer. “I don’t want free coffee. I did it simply because I love the Golden Roast.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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