Analogue Research 101
Pavilion Lake 101
Pavilion Lake is a fascinating site, with incredible rock structures, but what makes it an Analogue site? Couple of reasons: (1) The Science - the structures at Pavilion Lake are similar to those found on the early Earth, and are among the most structurally diverse of microbialites in the modern world; and (2) the Exploration – the operational manner in which the PLRP team conducts science at Pavilion Lake presents an analogue for human lunar and martian missions Keep reading to learn more!
What's a Microbialite?
Microbialites are rock structures that are created, in part, by the bacteria that live on their surfaces. They were the only forms of life on Earth for the first few billion years of its history. Microbialites are rare on Earth today, and exist only in extreme environments. There are several hypotheses about how the microbialites at Pavilion Lake formed, and a major focus of the Pavilion Lake Research Project is to conduct experiments to understand how these structures grow.
What's an Analogue?
The Pavilion Lake Research Project has many connections to our understanding of life in the universe and human space exploration. Understanding how modern microbialites grow and the signatures that they leave behind in the rock record give us a window into the earliest life forms on Earth. If life did evolve on other planets, the structures at Pavilion Lake might also be similar to those preserved within the planet's rock record.
In terms of the exploration analogies of our work to human space exploration, there are many. For example, our submersible pilots and divers are exposed to harsh conditions that require life support systems to study the microbialites. This is analogous to astronauts in space who require space suits and rovers to explore the surface of the Moon, and in the future, Mars. Our exploration methods are closely monitored so we can learn how to efficiently explore new planets and conduct science in extreme environments.
Looking from a Distance: Satellites and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV)
Remote sensing is an important part of space exploration, and an important part of the exploration of Pavilion Lake. In space, we have sent satellites to all parts of our solar system to explore the planets from a distance, taking photographs and measurements of scientifically important features. At Pavilion Lake, remote sensing is done underwater by remotely operated vehicles, and an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle called UBC-Gavia. These underwater vehicles are "satellite-analogues" for PLRP, and are able to take lake measurements and photograph large areas much more efficiently than divers and Deepworker. Using data obtained from UBC-Gavia, we have been able to understand much about what makes Pavilion Lake a special environment for microbialite growth.
Up Close and Personal: Scuba Divers And Astronauts
Often the only way to study an environment in detail is to have people on the ground, or in the water. However, there is no air to breathe in space, and humans cannot survive the cold temperatures and radiation from the sun. Space suits were designed to provide protection and life support, enabling humans to explore outer space, the Moon and Mars. These suits protect Astronauts from the extreme environment of outer space, allowing humans to explore these environments on the ground. At Pavilion Lake, a team of expert scuba divers explore the lake bottom using air tanks and dry suits to provide life support, and protection from the cold water (4ºC or 40ºF, even in the summer!). Scuba divers conduct underwater experiments and can obtain samples for scientists to study at the surface, much like astronauts obtained samples for Earth based scientists during the Apollo missions. However, divers can only safely dive to the shallow parts of Pavilion Lake, and can only stay underwater for a short time before they run out of air. Pavilion Lake is large, and mapping the entire lake using scuba would be extremely difficult due to its size and depth (60m, 200ft). Due to these restrictions, PLRP needed a new tool to map and explore Pavilion Lake and turned to DeepWorker submersibles in 2008.
Covering ground: Deepworker and The Lunar Electric Rover
Rovers will be an important part of the next Lunar mission, and will also be involved in the exploration of Mars. Rovers allow us to reach remote areas and cover more ground than many individual walking astronauts could explore. At Pavilion Lake, Deepworker submersibles enable our scientists to map and explore the deepest parts of the lake, and cover much more area underwater than was previously possible with scuba divers. Deepworker is also equipped with HD video cameras, so the scientists who make observations underwater can compare their observations with back room scientists after their dive. Deepworker is also equipped with a sampling arm, allowing microbialite retrieval from the deepest depths of the lake. The submersibles can communicate with the surface to assist with navigation, and are capable of calling divers from a support boat to retrieve samples from shallower depths. Deepworker has provided substantial and exciting scientific returns to the team.