SETI ET Life & Earth Life at Thermal Extremes

Robert Owen (
Fri, 17 Sep 1999 01:56:55 -0400

CREDIT: NASA Ames Research Center, September 16, 1999

John Bluck
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
650/604-5026 or 604-9000

Marsha Karle and Cheryl Matthews
National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, WY
307/344-2015 and 344-2010


                    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

"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: and

General Astrobiology information can be obtained on the Internet at:


Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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