NASA Astrobiologists to Study Extreme Life at Earth's Highest LakeOctober 10, 2002 / Posted by: Shige Abe
During October, the scientists will explore several lakes in the region, including the highest freshwater lake in the world, in the caldera of the Licancabur volcano, almost 20,000 feet high. The information they gather will help astrobiologists devise strategies and technologies to search for life on planets like Mars during future missions.
“If there was life on Mars 3.5 billion years ago, it could have used defense mechanisms similar to those used by the organisms at Licancabur volcano to survive,” said expedition principal investigator Dr. Nathalie Cabrol of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center. “This expedition and the follow-up mission in 2003 will provide critical astrobiological information about the limits of life on our planet,” Cabrol said. “It also will give us clues about which planets are good candidates to search for life and help in the design of future mission strategies and technologies for exploring ancient martian paleolakes or oceans on Europa.” A moon of Jupiter, Europa is believed by some scientists to contain a subsurface ocean of water.
Although the lake at Licancabur volcano is covered with almost 2 feet of ice during much of the year, the expedition will take place in the southern hemisphere’s spring, when the lake is not completely frozen. The researcher-divers will not use oxygen during their dives, but will have oxygen cylinders onboard a nearby dive boat as a backup precaution. The NASA Ames Safety, Environment and Mission Assurance Directorate has conducted an independent review of the Licancabur mission to ensure safety compliance.
The site research will answer three questions critical to astrobiology and space exploration, Cabrol explained — How do the organisms there survive in such a low-oxygen, high-ultraviolet radiation environment? What are the limits of life on Earth? Why does the water at the bottom of the volcano’s lake remain liquid when most of the lake’s surface is frozen much of the year? To find answers to these questions, the scientists plan to study the life forms that live in the lake, such as microrganisms and plankton. These ‘extremophiles’ thrive at Licancabur, one of the most Mars-like analogs on Earth.
Another stressor on the life forms at the volcano is low atmospheric pressure, said Cabrol. Because of the volcano’s high altitude, the atmospheric pressure is two times lower than at sea level. Researchers also hope to learn how the lake itself survives, given that the volcano is in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth.
The scientists will dive to the lake’s bottom to find some of the answers. The researchers theorize that the lake’s water temperature may remain warm at the bottom because of heat transferred from the volcano. “Only by going there will we find out,” said Cabrol.
Research during the 25-day mission, which begins Oct. 16, will include mapping the crater’s geology and topography, surveying the depth, topography and temperature of the lake bottom, characterizing the lake’s organisms and testing a two-wheeled Mars mini-rover concept.
Samples returned from the lake during the mission will be transferred to a support team of scientists who will begin preliminary analysis in the nearby town of Antofagasta. Most samples, however, will be flown to the United States for testing.
Cabrol will give brief interviews from the volcano’s summit using a satellite phone during the expedition on Oct. 24 and Nov. 1. Interviews will take place between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. PDT. To arrange an interview, please e-mail Kathleen Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org by Oct. 17.
The team also includes Dr. Chris McKay and Marcus Murbach of NASA Ames, Drs. Imre Friedman, Edmond Grin , Edna DeVore and Roseli Friedman of NASA Ames and the SETI Institute, Drs. Guillermo Chong, Cecilia Demergasso, Lorena Escudero and Cristian Tambley from the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Antofagasta, Chile, David Fike from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew Hock from the University of California at Los Angeles, Dr. Keeve Kiss from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Dr. Isivan Grigorsky from Kossuth Lajos University in Hungary and Brian Grigsby from the Schreder Planetarium.
With grant support from NASA, administrative support from the SETI Institute and funding from Project ARISE and the Shasta County Office of Education, the project has established a Web site that will let teachers, students and members of the public take a virtual field trip to Licancabur. Details are available at: www.extremeenvironment.com
Project ARISE (Advanced Rural Integrated Science Education) is a federally funded science professional development project for K-12 educators based in Shasta County, Calif. Details are available at: www.shastalink.k12.ca.us/scoe
The Licancabur expedition is funded primarily by NASA Ames Research Center and the NASA IDEAS (Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy and Space Science) grant program, an education and outreach public grant program administered by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
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