Educator Features

Field Trip Into the Past
05.23.06
A screenshot from Virtual Field Trip showing five scientists standing on a parched, rocky hillside in the Australian Outback where ancient stromatolites were found
In Western Australia, there is a unique location where the past and future meet. Thanks to NASA technology, students can explore this unusual site through a virtual field trip.

Image to left: NASA's "Virtual Field Trip" includes a variety of resources to let students explore the featured area. Credit: NASA

Contained in minerals in the Pilbara region is an incredible record of our planet's past -- fossils of the oldest known life on Earth. The fossils are stromatolites, or layered materials formed by microbial organisms. The stromatolites appear to date back 3.5 billion years to a time when the Earth's environment was too hostile to support the complex forms of life that exist today.

The connection to the past is apparent, but what do stromatolites have to do with the future? Data sent back from spacecraft currently exploring Mars indicate that liquid water once flowed on the Red Planet. If water has been on Mars, there may once have been life also. Right now, NASA is planning future exploration to learn if life has existed on Mars. That life would very likely have been comprised of simple, microbial organisms -- perhaps somewhat similar to those found in the Australian stromatolites. Studying the stromatolite fossils and their environment could provide vital information for the search for life on Mars.

Related Resources
+ NASA Education

+ Virtual Field Trip

+ NASA Learning Technologies

+ Passport to Knowledge

+ Australian Centre for Astrobiology

+ Looking for Life Video Promotion

+ Virtual Lab
NASA is collaborating with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and Passport to Knowledge to help students learn more about the stromatolites and the area where they are found. Passport to Knowledge, public television's longest-running series of interactive learning adventures, collaborates with other organizations to connect science concepts with real-world research. The Passport to Knowledge and Macquarie University projects provide multimedia materials for teachers. These materials allow students to explore science with real scientists in some of the most exciting and challenging places on Earth. In cooperation with NASA, Passport to Knowledge has developed a television feature on the subject that will air on Public Broadcasting Service stations beginning in May 2006. (Check local listings for broadcast times in your area.) Students can then get hands-on experience -- virtually, at least -- thanks to three NASA Learning Technologies tools. NLT supports the development of tools that make NASA content available through innovative uses of technology.

The first, "Virtual Field Trip," will let students explore the location where the stromatolites are found and provide them with a guided tour. The VFT's developer, Geoffrey Bruce, visited the site and captured spherical panoramic footage, which allows students to "look around" a 360-degree view of the environment. Along the way, they can access videos where experts explain what the students see. The experts note points of interest, and students can jump from one location to another as they explore. Once they've started the "Virtual Field Trip," students can then take an even closer look using the other two tools.

A scanning electron microscope image of a section of stromatolite magnified 112 times
Image to left: Students can get a close-up view of the stromatolites using Virtual Lab, which includes images such as this one captured with a scanning electronic microscope. Credit: NASA

"Virtual Lab," a suite of simulated microscopes, will let students study the stromatolites. Actual samples from a 3.5-billion-year-old stromatolite and modern-day microbial mats have been scanned into electronic files, and can be explored by students using the virtual microscopes. Students will be able to compare the 3.5- billion-year-old fossils with samples of modern stromatolites. NLT's "What's the Difference" tool will help students compare the details of stromatolite images and the modern and ancient environments of the Pilbara and Mars.

These NASA resources will be accessible through the NASA Quest Web site. The inspiration for the development of the VFT and much of the information used in the project has been provided by the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and the Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre at Macquarie University as part of the development of its NASA Macquarie University Pilbara Education Project. Through this international collaboration, students can learn more about what might be the oldest known life on Earth, and can even do some close-up research of their own. Someday, the techniques they use to study these stromatolites may help them in the search for life on other worlds.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services