Learn about the research done on Antarctica for future exploration for life on other planets.
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This dark environment looks like Mars. In a way, it is, for planetary scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center anyway. Here, the scientists specialize in studying life in the universe. Instead of travelling to Mars, these experts are doing the next best thing. This diversified team of scientists has made their way into the remote, dry valleys of western Antarctica near the Ross Ice Shelf. They spend a couple of months each year probing the seemingly lifeless environment for clues to its make up. Studying this barren and frozen ecosystem allows scientists to approach the investigation of Mars with a more educated eye. The dry valley region is a place where temperatures dip to -60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and are rarely above freezing in the summer. What startled researchers when they began their studies about 10 years ago was the discovery that microorganisms were living in the sandstone boulders along the valley wall. More recently, studies have shifted to beneath the rugged surface, which is actually a frozen lake. It’s hardly what most of us would consider to be a lake but nonetheless, after taking ice samples and melting a dive hole 13 feet down into the ice, scientists do find its liquid component. In—below weather, a diver on scuba gear is in preparation for the dive. Sample tubes are taken down in order to collect—from the lake bottom. Once inside the ice manhole, light diminishes very quickly. The absence of swimming aquatic life is immediately noticed in the crystal clear water. At moderate depths, a thin carpet of algae can be seen covering the bottom. These primitive organisms called stromatalytes, in their fossilized state may offer one of the best clues about life on another planet. The researchers seriously considered that these organisms are very similar to what they think might have existed on Mars and even to what was thought might have existed on earth in its earlier stages. Photographic evidence from the Viking spacecraft suggests that Mars had lakes at one time. Comparative studies in Antarctica tell us that life-sustaining water could have existed below frozen lakes on early Mars. Since mars died an early death, it may hold good fossil evidence of first life on the mysterious red planet. Using the frozen lakes of Antarctica as a laboratory is an important first step in the future exploration of Mars, knowing where life might have existed on the dead planet may lead us to the first evidence of other life there and at other places in our galaxy.