Exploring space in Pavilion Lake

July 15, 2009

Exploring space in Pavilion Lake

British Columbia's picturesque Pavilion Lake may not look like the moon, but researchers are diving beneath its surface to advance their knowledge of astrobiology and to learn more about lunar and Martian exploration.

Located within Marble Canyon Provincial Park, the body of water is the site of the Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP), an international, multi-disciplinary effort to explain the origin of freshwater rock structures known as microbialites (microorganisms which formed over 2.5 billion years ago). Understanding how modern microbialites grow and interpreting the signatures they leave behind in the rock gives the researchers, including McMaster's Greg Slater, a window into the earliest life forms on Earth. If life evolved on other planets, the structures at Pavilion Lake might be similar to those preserved within that planet's rock record.

"Not only are we carrying out extremely important research, but we are also working on exploration and logistics development that will help to improve future space missions to the moon and Mars," says Slater, McMaster's Canada Research Chair in Environmental Isotope Biogeochemistry and PLRP's deputy principal investigator.

PLRP has expanded its work with DeepWorker underwater submersibles to collaborate with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to train several astronauts, including McMaster's Dave Williams, in field science activities. They will also develop exploration success criteria and protocols for future human operations in space.

Submersible pilots and divers at Pavillion Lake are exposed to harsh conditions that require life support systems to study the microbialites, which is similar to astronauts in space who require space suits and rovers to explore the surface of the moon, and in the future, Mars. Exploration methods are closely monitored so that researchers can learn how to efficiently explore new planets and conduct science experiments in extreme environments.

Established in 2004, PLRP now includes more than 60 research and support personnel and has welcomed a number of McMaster graduate students, including Allyson Brady, Ben Cowie and Lisa Leoni, as well as undergraduate Jen Hansen, allowing them to be directly involved in PLRP research.