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Sept. 16, 1999

John Bluck

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

650/604-5026 or 604-9000 jbluck@mail.arc.nasa.gov


Marsha Karle and Cheryl Matthews

National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, WY

307/344-2015 and 344-2010


99-54AR

NASA SEEKS ODD ORGANISMS LIVING AT THE UPPER HEAT LIMIT OF LIFE

NASA scientists are planning to use `mini-monster cams' as a bold new step in preparation for the search for extraterrestrial life on moons and planets.

On Sept. 17 – 26, researchers will conduct an experiment at Yellowstone National Park, WY, in an effort to find tiny multi-cellular organisms that may be living in the Hot Springs. Conventional wisdom says that only single-celled life, such as bacteria, could exist in Yellowstone's boiling waters, according to scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

"We are hoping to locate multi-cellular organisms living in Hot Springs at temperatures well above the 150 degrees Fahrenheit that scientists now believe to be the upper limit at which that kind of life can exist," said Jonathan Trent, team leader of the Ames Yellowstone expedition.

The main tools Principal Investigator Trent and his team will use to seek "odd" new life forms in the Yellowstone Hot Springs are two special "baitable" salt shaker-size video cameras built by Deep Sea Power and Light, Inc., San Diego, CA. The cameras are in a NASA-designed package including sensors able to detect temperature, acidity, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels as well as depth below the surface.


.  Some of these pictures may be suitable for publication of small newspaper pictures.
"Part of our ability to anticipate what kind of life may exist on other worlds depends on expanding our knowledge of the ability of Earth life to adapt to extreme conditions," said Trent, an Ames astrobiologist. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and destiny of life in the universe.

"As far as we know, nobody has baited video cameras to try to attract life forms living within the Hot Springs," he said. "We plan to bait our `mini-monster cams' with local food, such as insects, algae or leaves – things that normally fall into the spring."

Scientists will stretch a rope across each hot spring they investigate, and then slowly lower the cameras and instruments into the middle of each pool of hot water. Wires will carry computer signals and TV pictures to the surface where scientists will record data and images.

In other efforts to prepare to later search for extraterrestrial life forms, investigators across the world have been looking for living things that exist under extreme conditions. Those conditions include extremes of heat and cold. Scientists have found single cell archaea growing at temperatures as high as 234 degrees Fahrenheit.

"By increasing our knowledge of the physical and chemical limits that are favorable to life, we'll expand the possibility of predicting where complex extraterrestrial life forms may exist," Trent said.

"One of Jupiter's moons, Europa, is very cold, but because of the strong tidal pulls of the huge planet's gravity, there could be a lot of volcanic activity under kilometers of water ice on that moon," he said. "The heat may create conditions that are extreme, yet conducive to some forms of life. These possibilities stimulate the imaginations of astrobiologists in search of complex extraterrestrial life."

"If we spot multi-celled life forms in the Hot Springs, we want to know how extreme the conditions are in the immediate vicinity," Trent said. "Without the sensor array, perhaps we could be fooled by a flow of cold water if we were to use just the cameras."

Scientists of the Ames Sensors 2000! Project were tasked with developing a probe housing and electronics capable of surviving the boiling water, and yet able to detect and transmit data to the scientists in the field near the Hot Springs.

"The real challenge has been to develop a probe that can survive in extreme environments of boiling, acidic water," said Fred Martwick, an Ames Sensors 2000! lead engineer for the Yellowstone project.

Trent will usually be available to meet with media representatives at the Grant Village Lodge in Yellowstone after 7 p.m. MDT each day of the expedition. No media representatives will be permitted in the research area because of safety concerns and possible impact on natural resources.

Yellowstone information is on the Internet at: http://www.yellowstone-park.net/YellowstoneInformation/maps.htm and http://www.yellowstone-park.net/photo-gallery/photo_groups.htm. General Astrobiology information can be obtained on the Internet at: http://astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov/

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