The links between Pavilion Lake, Antarctica and Mars

March 4, 2015 - via NASA

Two robot vehicles were busy searching Pavilion Lake last month as part of a new partnership between NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the Naval Post-Graduate School (NPS) based in Monterey California.
Since 1998, NASA has been conducting research on the rare microbialite structures on the lake floor and whether they provide links to possible life on Mars.

The crew that arrived here Feb. 14 for two weeks of research used an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) and a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to operate under the lake ice while mapping the topography of the lake with sonar, collecting samples and doing temperature readings – all in preparation for a trip to Antarctica later this year. In Antarctica, they will be conducting research in Lake Untersee, a perennially ice-covered lake on the peninsula of the remote continent. “Lake Untersee is similar in length to Pavilion at six kilometers long and it has similar slopes and underway topography, so there are a lot of interesting similarities,” said Dr. Darlene Lim from NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California.

Lim said the robots “can do all sorts of things which are very helpful to us in terms of the science and in terms of our exploration initiatives, such as trying to understand how human beings should interact with robots.”

Lim has been coming to Pavilion Lake for 14 years and will be back again later this summer for more research.

She said the lake was a good place to take the robotic vehicles out for a test drive. “It’s important they stay above the bottom of Lake Untersee, which also has conical types of microbialites. We don’t want them to be disturbed, so Pavilion is a fantastic place to get ready for Untersee as the machines are maneuvered in autonomous mode.”

While the experiments at Pavilion help the NPS scientists prepare for Untersee, they are also providing NASA with high-resolution imaging of what the microbialites look like and a better understanding of the sub-centimetre features on the surface of the coral-like structures.

“This allows us to fine tune and tweak our data and understand Pavilion Lake better,” said Lim.

“Pavilion Lake is so remarkable and has so many attractions for scientists,” Lim told the News.

“Pavilion Lake’s enabling us to learn more about X, Y and Z research projects. This lake is really special - it’s remote but not too remote, it’s deep but not that deep, big but not that big and it contains these very special microbialites.

It’s a perfect combination of everything you could want - whether you’re a scientist, an explorer or an engineer.”

According to Lim, there is a direct link between the microbialite research at Pavilion Lake and what mankind may do in the future on Mars. “All the robotic missions on Mars have been focused on characterizing the environment from a geological standpoint and then somewhat for searching for life signatures on Mars, whether it’s organics or biosignatures,” said Lim. “No mission to date has identified clearly that there are carbonate structure akin to microbialites on the surface of Mars. That’s not saying that they’re not there or there’s not the possibility of them being there; rather, there’s so much dust covering the planet, we’ve only managed to rove on the ground a tiny percentage of Mars, compared to what we know is out there. There are still papers coming out where people have identified regions where they’re pretty sure there are microbialites on Mars.”

She continued, “But I think the real direct hook between what we do and this ongoing search for life and life signatures on Mars is that the techniques we used to investigate and interrogate these microbialites in Pavilion Lake have bearing on what will be done in the future, whether it’s lessons learned that we garner in what works and doesn’t work or the information we gather on the differences between the microbialites. Those are the types of things that you would definitely build upon, knowledge-wise, as we go forward and look for signs of life on Mars, whether with robotics or manned missions.”

On a more personal note, Lim said Pavilion Lake has become “very, very special to me.

“All of the projects I’m working on in some way come back to my experiences and my research background here at Pavilion,” she explained. “I’m working in deserts now, I’m working in volcanic fields, but in some ways, there’s always less than six degrees of separation between a research project I’m currently engaged in, some collaboration, some talk I’m giving, wherever it may be, and Pavilion Lake. This place is always going to be very near and dear to my heart. The people I’ve met and all the support we’ve had here over the years are all part of my life’s work and my life now. It will always be a very, very special part of my life.”

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Author:Wendy Fraser