“They floated in with their flashlights and their winter coats, and found the station cold and dark, with frost along the walls. Savinikh tried to turn the lights on—nothing, not that he expected anything. They took off their gas masks—they were making it even more difficult to see around the darkened station, and there was no smell of fire.
Savinikh dived to the floor and opened the shade covering a window. A ray of sunlight fell on the ceiling, illuminating the station a little bit. They found the crackers and salt tablets that were left on the table by the previous crew—part of a traditional Russian welcoming ceremony that is still performed on the ISS today—as well as all the onboard station documentation neatly packed and secured to its shelves. All of the ventilators and other systems that normally hummed noisily were off. Savinikh recalls in his flight journal “it felt like being in an old, abandoned home.”
“Science sometimes has an element of luck,” Richard Norris said. “We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person.”
Their observations show that moving the rocks requires a rare combination of events. First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to form floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks.
As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form thin sheets of “windowpane” ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa, pushing rocks in front of them and leaving trails in the soft mud below the surface.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography: “Sailing Stones” of Death Valley Seen in Action for the First Time