Friday, June 20, 2008

Why are NASA Astrobiologists Investigating a Remote Canadian Lake?

Pavilion Lake in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, is considered a “spiritual place” by the native Tskwaylaxw people of Pavilion. Overlooking the lake is a limestone formation that they believe is a “Transformer Stone” meaning that in First Nations legend it was created by the actions of the “Transformers”, a group of supernatural beings who traveled around the country putting things to right by changing things into stone.

They call the formation “K'lpalekw”, which means in their tongue of Secwepemc'tsn "Coyote's Penis". The lake, the canyon and this structure all have special spiritual significance to the nearby native communities, but NASA isn’t interested in the spiritually of the place, they believe that what lies under the lake could help answer the question of the origins of life itself.

At first glance, the remote lake and the surrounding landscape is not a place where you’d expect to find anything NASA would be interested in, but they’ve been studying the area for over a decade now. What is it they are after?

Greg Slater, an environmental geochemist in the Faculty of Science at McMaster University, is a part of the latest exploration effort at the lake. He says the objects of interest are far down below the surface. Unique carbonate rock structures, known as microbialites are are covered with microbes. These mysterious long, red fingers stand like sentinels at the bottom of the mysteriously deep Pavilion Lake, B.C. Are they life forms? An international team of researchers that includes NASA astronauts and a multi-disciplinary team of other scientists, want to answer that question, and by doing so they hope to unlock secrets useful for the search for life on Mars. The unique growths are home to a thriving population of various kinds of bacteria. The researchers are trying to determine whether bacteria built the structures, and if so, how. How are single-celled organism able to build impressively sized structures, and could single-celled organisms be doing the same thing on other planets as well?

"Are they the result of biological or geological processes? Why are there different microbes living on them and how long have these microbial communities been preserved? These are some of our big questions," says Slater, part of an international team researching these strange specimens.

This has been an ongoing mystery for scientists. They didn’t know what they were when they were first discovered in 1997, and they still don’t know exactly what they are and how they formed.

"These unique and rare microbialite formations are important to NASA's astrobiology effort because they are big, macroscopic evidence of microscopic life," said Dr. Chris McKay, a scientist with the NASA Astrobiology Institute said back in 1998 when NASA first started exploring the lake. "They are helping us understand one of the big astrobiology questions how early life took hold and began to flourish on Earth. These fossils are like seeing a billion-year-old footprint in the sand and comparing it to a modern human foot.”

Now mini-subs called “single person submersibles” that are manned by only person at a time, have been called in to help scientists retrieve samples of the deepest microbialites specimens that may hold vital clues to the history of life on Earth, and on other planets as well.

"It's going to help us develop a baseline of understanding about life on our planet," says Slater. "As amazing as it sounds, the bottom of a lake can answer lots of questions about life on Earth. And how we explore this Lake will lay the groundwork for how we will explore Mars."

Astronaut Dave Williams, also a professor at McMaster, has been trained as a Deepworker pilot. He says that this new advanced underwater exploration technology will “enable investigators to study previously inaccessible specimens."

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Original here

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