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Things are normally quiet in the Lance Formation of eastern Wyoming. The song of the meadowlarks, the rugged hills, and the brilliant blue skies as far as the eye can see give little hint of the teeming Old West of the 1800s when wagon trains carried pioneers dreaming of a new life. Nor, at first glance, does the buff-colored sandstone or green shale tell of centuries earlier when floods may have washed the remains of dinosaurs many miles from where they roamed.
But every year during the month of June, a private cattle ranch on the Lance Formation is abuzz with activity as more than 35 students and participants carefully excavate the long-buried bones of thousands of Upper Cretaceous dinosaurs in this rich deposit. The Dinosaur Project, also known as the Dinodig, is run by Southwestern Adventist University, with additional funding through the nonprofit Earth History Research Center.
The team excavates more than 1,000 bones each June and spends the rest of the year preparing and curating the bones into the university’s collection. Several years ago, the usual excitement reached new heights when the crew discovered the remains of what may be the rare species Nanotyrannus lancensis. If validated, this find would be the third known specimen of the species in the world.
“We do world-class science here,” said Dinodig project director Dr. Art Chadwick. “We have innovated in several key areas that allow us to gain an extremely accurate picture of our study area, and we push the envelope further every season.”
An important part of the Dinodig project is to send data and photos back to the university daily. But connectivity is a serious hurdle on a remote ranch one hour from the nearest town in the least populated county of the least populated state, where the crew needs to climb a certain hill to get reliable cell phone service. That’s why the Dinodig project uses HughesNet® high-speed satellite service delivered over the SPACEWAY® 3 satellite system, the world’s first commercial satellite with onboard switching and routing.
The data collected by the scientists is irreplaceable, and the HughesNet service enables them to send daily backups to the university. The team uses high-precision GPS (global positioning system) equipment to record the location of each bone within millimeters and GIS (geographic information system) software to analyze and produce an integrated picture, as well as a Web-based catalog so that the results may be available to researchers worldwide.
“I cannot overstate how well HughesNet is working for us, especially this season,” said Justin Woods, technical director for the Dinodig project. “We’re using the HN9000 modem and the best dish and service plan. It’s exactly what we needed—super fast and rock solid.”
The HughesNet connectivity has also allowed the Dinodiggers to post daily video blogs on YouTube to give followers a sense of what it’s really like to be on a dinosaur dig. In addition, the team strings together hundreds of images into a single panorama that is posted to the Web in an online dinosaur museum.
But the dinosaur hunters use HughesNet for more than official work. The high-speed satellite service also helps with day-to-day life—boosting morale and providing connectivity to family and friends. “It would be much harder to recruit staff if they just went into a black hole for a month,” said Woods. “But with HughesNet, they can check email, go on Facebook, and talk over the phone via Skype.”
Occasionally, intense weather conditions prevent work in the quarries. When this happens, many of the participants use the time to catch up on email and browse the Internet. “Even with 30 people using the system at the same time, the stability and speed of HughesNet has been great,” added Woods. “The satellite link is our most vital link. It’s irreplaceable.”
With nearly 3,000 bones that Web viewers can rotate in 3D and a map that shows the location where each bone was found in the quarry, anyone can study The Dinosaur Project’s rich collection of bones and become a part of this exciting project. Visit http://dinodig.swau.edu to view the photo gallery, read field notes—and experience the excavation site.
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