Bozeman, Montana: How does life begin and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? What is the future of life on Earth? These fundamental questions make up the science of astrobiology, and some of NASA's top scientists are trying to answer them in - of all places - Yellowstone National Park. Microscopic organisms that have inhabited Yellowstone's hot springs for billions of years tell the story of life on earth, and could eventually lead to the discovery of life on other planets.
While astrobiology-related studies have been taking place in Yellowstone for several years, a grant from Lockheed Martin Corporation and the Ames Research Center team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute will soon make this fascinating field of study accessible for the first time through permanent interpretive exhibits for park visitors. The $66,000 grant to the Bozeman, Montana-based Yellowstone Park Foundation will fund the development of outdoor exhibits in several locations throughout the park. These exhibits will interpret Yellowstone's hydrothermal features as extreme habitats for amazing life forms that may help explain the origins of life on Earth and provide clues in the search for life on other planets.
The primary focus of this research taking place in Yellowstone is the microscopic organisms, called thermophiles, which inhabit the boiling waters of the park's hot springs. Scientists are not just looking at living thermophiles - they are looking at the fossil remains of thermophiles that lived up to four billion years ago. By studying the changes in these fossil records throughout time, scientists are forming a picture of the history of life and of the climate on Earth. By comparing the fossil record of thermophiles on Earth to rocks found on Mars, we may find definitive evidence of past life on that planet.
Installation of the new Yellowstone exhibits is expected to begin during the 2004 summer visitor season. The new interpretive exhibits represent the beginning of what NASA and Lockheed Martin hope will be an ongoing, multi-tiered collaboration with Yellowstone National Park and the Yellowstone Park Foundation to engage the public in the fascinating discoveries being made possible by research in Yellowstone. Future plans could include funding for educational pamphlets, and interactive indoor exhibits at the Visitor Education Center to be built at Old Faithful.
Linda Young, Deputy Chief of Interpretation for Yellowstone National Park, calls Yellowstone a "living laboratory" where its diverse resources and natural processes provide unique opportunities for research and education.
"The hydrothermal features have fascinated visitors for more than a century,"said Young, "but who would have thought that any living thing could not only survive, but thrive in these extreme conditions. We now know that Yellowstone's hot springs are more than just beautiful to look at - they are proving to be enormously valuable in what they are revealing about our own planet's geologic and biologic past."
Young sees education as an important key to long-term conservation of Yellowstone's resources. "Ultimately, the astrobiology-related exhibits will help visitors understand the multiple values of preserving a place like Yellowstone," she said. "Yellowstone has many resources that are well known, such as wildlife or Old Faithful--the park's most famous hydrothermal feature. However, astrobiology research in Yellowstone helps us to understand that Yellowstone has resources that are less obvious, yet of immeasurable value."
Mr. Kenneth Reightler, President, Lockheed Martin Space Operations, is enthusiastic about the collaboration with Yellowstone. "Yellowstone National Park offers the public the perfect portal to astrobiology. It is a wonderful opportunity for NASA to help share new scientific discoveries with three million park visitors annually." This helps to facilitate NASA's and Lockheed Martin's educational missions, Reightler explained, and also allows them to play a role in protecting the world's first national park. "We believe that when park visitors understand the connections between the biology and geology in Yellowstone, they will develop an even more profound appreciation of why the park exists, and the significance of protecting it for future generations."
The endeavor to bring astrobiology interpretation to Yellowstone is particularly timely now, with public interest in NASA's Mars Exploration Program at an all-time high. The current missions of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - which landed on the red planet in January of this year, are to determine the history of climate and water at two sites on Mars where conditions may once have been favorable to life. The rovers'instruments will study the geologic record at the sites, and evaluate whether those conditions would have been suitable for life. The answer could be as close as a few weeks away.
Dr. David Des Marais, a member of the Mars Rover Science Operations working group and lead of the Ames astrobiology team, has long appreciated the value of Yellowstone for Mars exploration. "Volcanic activity has interacted with water on Mars, as well as on Earth. Thermal springs like those in Yellowstone are natural oases for diverse life forms, and hot spring mineral deposits can preserve fossils. Yellowstone's natural wonders thus guide our search for evidence of ancient martian thermal springs, and, potentially, for traces of martian life."
If NASA's robotic explorers uncover fossil evidence of hot springs similar to those in Yellowstone, their discovery might pave the way for a future mission that discovers the past existence of life on another planet.
The mission of the Yellowstone Park Foundation is to fund projects that protect, preserve, and enhance Yellowstone National Park. The Foundation relies on the generosity of individuals, foundations, and corporations to help ensure that Yellowstone is as special today, and for future generations, as when it was first established. www.ypf.org.
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