Why are NASA Astrobiologists Investigating a Remote Canadian Lake?
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.”