Thursday, November 12, 2009

Discoveries in the Deep: How astronauts practice to explore other worlds...

Discoveries in the Deep: How Astronauts Practice to Explore Other Worlds

Pavilion Lake, in British Columbia, Canada, is home to a biological mystery. Microbialites, coral-like structures built by bacteria, in a variety of sizes and shapes, carpet the lakebed. That's unusual for a freshwater lake like Pavilion. So unusual that researchers don't know of any other freshwater lake in the world that has microbialites with some of the same strange shapes.

That explains why scientists have established the Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) to study the lake. They want to understand what's so unusual about seemingly normal Pavilion Lake, how the microbial structures manage to survive, why they aren't destroyed by snails, worms and other grazing animals, as they are elsewhere.

What it doesn't explain is why NASA's MMAMA (Moon and Mars Analogue Missions Activities) program has funded the PRLP to continue its work for the next several years. Or why astronauts from NASA and CSA (the Canadian Space Agency) are participating in the project. After all, there are no lakes on the moon, and it's been a long time since there were any on Mars.

Because of the logistical difficulty of doing comprehensive exploration in an underwater environment, however, lessons learned in the process of exploring Pavilion Lake are directly relevant to future human exploration of other worlds.

"We're doing science in a setting where we have limited life support," says Darlene Lim of NASA Ames Research Center, PLRP's principal investigator. "I can't just walk out and hang out with [an interesting] rock all day."

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