LASP-led research has discovered microbes living in a toxic volcanic lake that may rank as one of the harshest environments on Earth. Their findings, published recently online, could guide scientists looking for signs of ancient life on Mars.
The team, led by LASP planetary scientist Brian Hynek, braved second-degree burns, sulfuric acid fumes, and the threat of eruptions to collect samples of water from the aptly-named Laguna Caliente. Nestled in Costa Rica’s Poás Volcano, this body of water is 10 million times more acidic than tap water and can reach near boiling temperatures. It also resembles the ancient hot springs that dotted the surface of early Mars, Hynek said.
The Costa Rican lake supports living organisms—but only one. Hynek and his colleagues found microbes belonging to just a single species of bacteria in the lake water, a rock-bottom level of diversity.
Planetary scientists are a step closer to understanding changes in the puzzling jets of gas and dust grains observed shooting into space from cracks on the icy surface of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.
First observed in 2005 by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it orbited the ringed planet, the plume is coming from a subterranean, salty ocean beneath the moon’s surface. The latest observations with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now at Saturn by a team including Larry Esposito, LASP planetary scientist and University of Colorado Boulder professor, indicate at least some of the narrow jets there blast with increased fury when the moon is farther from Saturn.
Mars turned cold and dry long ago, but LASP-led research at the University of Colorado Boulder has unveiled evidence of an ancient lake that likely represents some of the last potentially habitable surface water ever to exist on the Red Planet.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Geology, examined an 18-square-mile chloride salt deposit (roughly the size of the city of Boulder) in the planet’s Meridiani region near the Mars Opportunity rover’s landing site. As seen on Earth in locations such as Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, large-scale salt deposits are considered to be evidence of evaporated bodies of water.
Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission, led by LASP and University of Colorado postdoctoral researcher, Sean Hsu, have found that microscopic grains of rock detected near Saturn imply hydrothermal activity is taking place within the moon Enceladus.
This is the first clear indication of an icy moon having hydrothermal activity—in which seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust, emerging as a heated, mineral-laden solution. The finding adds to the tantalizing possibility that Enceladus, which displays remarkable geologic activity including geysers, could contain environments suitable for living organisms.
The results were published today in the journal Nature.
NASA has awarded a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder, which includes LASP scientists, more than $7 million to study aspects of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The team, led by CU-Boulder Professor Alexis Templeton of the geological sciences department, will be researching what scientists call “rock-powered life.” Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy, that, when released through the interaction of rocks and water, have the ability to power living systems on Earth as well as on other planets like Mars, said Templeton, principal investigator on the effort.
A NASA mission to Mars led by LASP is set to slide into orbit around the red planet on Sept. 21 to investigate how its climate has changed over the eons, completing a 10-month interplanetary journey of 442 million miles.
The orbit-insertion maneuver will begin with six thruster engines firing to shed some of the velocity from the spacecraft, known as the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN mission. The thruster engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the spacecraft, allowing it to be captured into an elliptical orbit around Mars.
A study published in the journal Nature and co-authored by LASP scientist Sascha Kempf indicates that samples of water vapor and ice particles coming from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus demonstrate evidence for a large, subterranean salt-water reservoir. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) on board the NASA Cassini spacecraft measured the composition of plumes—emanating from fractures called tiger stripes—and found that ice grains close to the moon are salt rich, unlike those that make up the planet’s E Ring.