Press Release

NASA and SETI Explorers Search for Planetary Evolution Clues on Earth

By SpaceRef Editor
October 29, 2006
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NASA and SETI Explorers Search for Planetary Evolution Clues on Earth

To go where few people have gone before, a team of expert scientists, mountain-climbers, and divers will explore the ecosystems of three high-altitude summit lakes to understand microbial life’s adaptation to these challenging environments.

Exploring new frontiers on Earth, the 15-member team will climb three giant volcanoes of the Andes and their summit lakes: Licancabur at 19,813 feet (6004 m), Poquentica at 19,192 feet (5850 m), and Aguas Calientes at 19,635 feet (5950 m), in Bolivia and Chile. They will be going where the atmosphere is thin, ultraviolet radiation intense, and the temperatures cold, which make these environmental conditions potential analogs to ancient martian lakes. The High Lakes Project, funded by a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute to the SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif., is a collaborative effort to investigate extreme lakes at the summit of high volcanoes and collect new knowledge about the biosphere of our own planet, the evolution of life and its adaptation to climate changes. The expedition is scheduled to run from Oct. 27 to Dec. 7.

“What is critical for life is how environmental extremes interact with each other through time, and the time they give life to adapt,” said Nathalie Cabrol, the expedition’s lead and principal investigator at the SETI Institute who works at NASA Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley. “Time may be just what is needed for life to survive environmental changes. This is true on Earth and could have been true as well on Mars, and beyond.”

In the past four years, the team has investigated the geophysical environment of the summit lakes of the Licancabur and Poquentica volcanoes, as well as lower lakes such as Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca at 14,520 feet (4,400 m), and Laguna Colorada at 14,850 feet (4,500 m). Some of these lakes in the Bolivian Andes are poorly known. They are located in rugged environments, and host unique ecosystems.

“Our earlier expeditions have helped us identify the presence of a unique ecosystem at the summit of Licancabur,” said Cabrol. “Preliminary results on microbial organisms both in bottom sediments near shore and zooplankton confirmed that species are adapting to this unique environment. We also know now from these results that the potential to discover new species is very high.”

This year, the team will dive to the bottom of these high-altitude lakes for the first time using compact oxygen diving equipment, called rebreathers. These are bags that divers carry on their chests (like a third lung) that capture carbon dioxide and allow the divers to breathe pure oxygen, thereby preventing expelled carbon dioxide from contaminating the lakes.

“The advantage of the rebreathers is that they will allow divers enough time to explore the ecosystem at the bottom of the Licancabur lake in great detail, to capture the complexities of its biology, and to fully photo- and video-document it,” said Cabrol. “We are testing new exploration techniques that are pushing the limits of human exploration of high-altitude aquatic environments. While standard scuba was used by archeological teams back in the 80s and 90s at Licancabur, it presented risks that oxygen rebreathers mitigate,” Cabrol said.

Previous expeditions to the 4-mile-high volcanic lake in the Andes have led to significant scientific findings about the potential for life on other planets and helped prepare for future planetary missions to Mars and beyond. “This expedition represents potentially an immense source of knowledge,” Cabrol said. “We might learn more about microbial adaptation to extreme environments on Earth that could lead to a better understanding of how microbial organisms might have survived on ancient Mars.”

For more information about NASA and the NASA Astrobiology Institute on the Web, visit:

For more information about the SETI Institute and the High Lakes project, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.