Nathalie Cabrol and NAI Team Return from Field Expedition to Chile

Nathalie Cabrol and NAI Team Return from Field Expedition to Chile

The SETI Institute's NAI team has just returned from a nearly month-long field expedition to the Andes.

SETI Institute Flag at the Summit of Simba

Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, has just returned from a nearly month-long field expedition with the SETI Institute NAI team on its 2018 field expedition to the Andes.

While they were there, they continued the work of developing new planetary exploration strategies, instruments, and systems that will change the way we search for life beyond Earth. The project is supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and will help prepare future missions to Mars that will be looking for traces of ancient biosignatures.

Nathalie shared updates from the field, detailing some of the teams challenges and successes – you can catch up here.

Congratulations to the whole team for a successful expedition:

From the SETI Institute:
Nathalie A. Cabrol
Pablo Sobron
Philippe Sarrazin
Kimberley Warren-Rhodes

From Other Institutions:
Sherry Cady, PNNL
Cecilia Demergasso, UCN, Chile
Colin Flinders, USC
Steven Ford, Honeybee Robotics
Victor Parro, CAB, Madrid, Spain
Alberto Candela, CMU
Nancy Hinman, University of Montana
Stephen Indyk, Honeybee Robotics
Jim Larrick, Panorama Research Institute
Spencer Mishlen, National Geographic
Phillip Morrison, Honeybee Robotics
Michael Phillips, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Kevin Rhodes, University of Guam
Laura Sánchez Garcia, CAB, Madrid
David Wettergreen, CMU


With the help of Victor Robles, Nathalie also put together a couple of videos that go into greater detail about the science being done:

Report from Laguna Aguas Calientes
 

Video Credit : Victor Robles, Campoalto, and the SETI Institute NAI Team

Video Transcript:

Good morning friends of the SETI Institute. My name is Nathalie Cabrol. I am the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute. It is my pleasure to welcome you this morning here in the Chilean Altiplano at Laguna Aguas Calientes.

Laguna Aguas Calientes is located at 4,500 meters in the Chilean Altiplano. It is very close to Argentina in this direction, maybe 20 kilometers away from us, and about 40 kilometers to Bolivia in that direction.

As part of our biosignature detection project, which is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, our team has been visiting a number of sites for the past three weeks that are analog to Martian that are being visited by rovers currently, or will be visited in the near future by Mars 2020 and ExoMars. What we’re trying to achieve here is to understand what orbital data and original scale data is teaching us about the reality of microbial habitat. How the information that’s come from orbit is informing us about what’s happening in those rocks or under the subsurface.

Laguna Aguas Calientes is typically a lake that is supplied by hydrothermal springs. These are cold springs, they are not boiling springs. There temperature is around 12- or 14-degrees C and it’s an astrobiologist’s paradise. It’s really clearly a link between the past and the present. The entire Altiplano is a story about the interaction with volcanism and water, and how they mix, how they help each other or how they destroy the environment. Sometimes generating life, sometimes generating death. And this is the dynamic of this whole beautiful space here. Life is the result of this energy generated by water and fire. And it’s here and it was also on Mars (note, she is referring to water and fire here). We know that, we have this in those beautiful images brought back by the mission.

Our goal is to understand what kind of features those microbial organisms are leaving in the rocks. What kind of pigment, what kind of morphological features, what kind of signature can we read? We need to understand how to use the instrumentation we have to detect those biosignatures.

I would like to end this video by thanking you for sharing this time with me and I’m thanking you also on behalf of my team. And also, I would like to do what has become a tradition now when a SETI team is going somewhere in the field, it is to deploy the SETI expedition flag. Here is flag number 1. I take it with me every time I go in the Andes or in any extreme environment. So, this is flag number 1. It has been deployed now in Salar de Pajonales. Flag number 2 is currently a few thousand kilometers to the south of here with Dale Andersen in Antarctica. And flag number 3 flew maybe one week before we left for the field with Pamela Harman and Bill Diamond on the SOFIA flight with teachers. I would like to thank you for the time you shared with us during this video. I would like to invite you to continue to support the SETI Institute whether online on our website or maybe even come and visit us at the Mountain View headquarters. So, thank you again, goodbye, and see you soon.

Report from Laguna Lejia
 

Video credit: Victor Robles, Campoalto, and the SETI Institute NAI Team

Video Transcript:

Welcome to you friends of the SETI Institute. We are here in Laguna Lejia in Chilean Altiplano where are team is finishing an almost 4-week leg of the biosignature detection project. My name is Nathalie Cabrol. I am the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute. We’re here today as part of a project funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute that seeks to understand how to detect biosignatures.

The conditions that we are experiencing right now in the Altiplano are not exactly easy. We have been under a wind storm for the past two days. The story of Laguna Lejia is very similar to what we witnessed on Mars. It’s the association of lake history and volcanism. So, in the terraces of Laguna Lejia we’re sort of witnessing what could have happened on Mars and by studying those layers we are learning maybe how to recognize them on Mars but also maybe how to extract biosignatures that may be contained in those layers.

Here we are in front of one of the outcrops of Laguna Lejia. And you have the story of two very different lakes. The first one is exposed here and is the most recent part of the lake where you see a succession of ash deposits and salt deposits. Very thin layers, very bright light-toned deposits.

This is very different. When I start seeing these layers here it was like walking into time. It was just stepping way back, like 10,000 years ago. Now you can see the different layers and they are repeating themselves. A change in colors, sometimes there is a little bit more of a dark color, sometimes a little bit more of an orange. The dark and orange are associated with organic matter; the different colors are associated with the composition of the sediment depending on the season. So, the bars are definitely associated with natural deposits. This is Laguna Lejia over 10,000 years ago.

And from time to time we see layers like those that are including worm tubes. All you see here are worm tubes encased into a more textured sediment. Obviously we were not expecting to see worm tubes on Mars. The organisms we are expecting to find, if any, will be a lot more primitive. So, I know bacteria, blue and green algae, developed very early on Earth. And about 3.8 billion years ago they provided the first fossil evidence of life on Earth.

So, the adaptation of the microorganisms that are here can tell us something very profound about the potential for adaptation of microorganisms on Mars, the type of pigment we should be looking for. So basically, these are elements we are looking for to try understand what kind of biosignatures we are looking for, what kind of scale, and what type of resolution we should be searching for.

This project is under the umbrella the astrobiology research division of the SETI Institute and really fits under our mission at the Institute which is to understand the nature of life and its distribution and the future of life in the universe. Simply to understand if we are alone in the universe.

Anyways to say goodbye and thank you for sharing this time with us. I’m going to follow what has become a tradition which is to sort of deploy the SETI Institute expedition flag number 1 which I always have with me in expedition. I’m going to just put this on the floor. Flag number 1 has come to the Andes a few times now. Flag number 2 is a few kilometers to the south with Dale Andersen in Antarctica. And flag number 3 flew with Pamela Harman and Bill Diamond about one week before we left which is now three weeks ago and flew with teachers on SOFIA airborne observatory. So, thank you very much for spending this time with us. Please keep supporting the SETI Institute. Visit online and if you can, visit us at our headquarters in Mountain View. Thank you very much again. Goodbye.

Report from Salar de Pajonales

Video credit: Victor Robles, Campoalto, and the SETI Institute NAI Team

Video Transcript:

Good morning and welcome. My name is Nathalie Cabrol. I am the Director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and I am an astrobiologist and a planetary scientist. This is a beautiful morning in Salar de Pajonales in Chile. We are in the Chilean Altiplano and what you see behind me is our basecamp. It has been our basecamp for a few days now. This is literally a little city behind me. We have about 15 tents, 2 domes.

It’s absolutely fantastic landscape, it’s other worldly. We have a feeling that we are actually walking on a different planet and have been for several days now. We have a project which is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute which is actually studying ways of detecting biosignatures. It’s in support of future missions to Mars. But in general, it’s going to be helping the development of new techniques, new instruments and new methods of detection for the search for life in the solar system.

Salar de Pajonales is the first site on our trip. We will stay in the Altiplano between October 27 which is when the team arrived here until November 19th. We will be visiting the El Tatio geysers which are at about 4,300 meters. Here we are at about 3,500 meters at Pajonales. And then we’ll go even higher, we’ll go to Laguna Lejia and Laguna Aguas Calientes all in San Pedro, the Atacama region. And we will end our trip by climbing the Simba volcano that is close to 20,000 feet.

For each of the sites the goal is the same. We’re here to collect a lot of data, to understand how we integrate this data from orbit to the ground to the lab to develop new detection methods, exploration strategies and instruments. And with that data also we are going to be able to train new systems supported by AI and machine learning which will help us ultimately develop the new exploration strategies, the new generation of exploration for strategies for the search for life in the solar system.

This project is part of the Astrobiology Research Division of the SETI Institute. It is connected to the mission of the SETI Institute in that it provides us with answers or at least ways to find answers to are we alone in the solar system. Basically, what we are doing is to try to understand how to detect life that is not visible, or traces of past life that might be hiding somewhere.

I would like to end by first thanking you for having me with you at least for a short moment. And I’m so very pleased that I was able to share with you the landscape we have behind us, it’s, as I said when we started, absolutely stunning. And also, I would like to show you the SETI flag that we are deploying. Here is flag #1, I am always taking it with me. That’s the second or third time now that it is deployed in the Andes. Flag #2 is actually a few thousand kilometers south of here with Dale Andersen in Antarctica, and flag #3 flew about a week before we left on the SOFIA airplane with teachers and Pamela Harman and Bill Diamond.

So, thank you very much for having us you and on behalf of my team I would like to say thank you and goodbye from Salar de Pajonales and the Chilean Altiplano. Goodnight.

Report from El Tatio

Video credit: Victor Robles, Campoalto, and the SETI Institute NAI Team

Video Transcript:

Welcome. My name is Nathalie Cabrol and I am the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute. First I will have to apologize because I will have to put these glasses on, the light is extremely bright today and really this is needed. We are here today at El Tatio. El Tatio is located in the Chilean Altiplano at an elevation of 4,300 meters or a little over 14,000 feet. And clearly there is a lot of wind today, the temperature is a little cooler than in Pajonales where we at 3,500 meters and the environment is completely different.

I’m here with a very multidisciplinary team – we have engineers, roboticists, we have microbiologists, geologists, environmental scientists, planetary geologists and astrobiologists. This project is under the umbrella of the Astrobiology Division of the SETI Institute and it helps us better understand if life had a chance to appear on a different planet in the solar system.

Here, today, and for the next three days we here in a hydrothermal environment. There were many hydrothermal springs on Mars. We have the mineral and spectral evidence of that. Many places like this one behind me where energy, nutrients, water and shelter were present. So right now, we are doing what we did in Pajonales, trying to understand how the orbit imagery is informing us about what’s happening at a microscopic scale. Our goal is really by understanding the special scale and spectral resolution, and the new methods by approaching biosignature detection, what we want to do is create the next generation of astrobiology exploration tools and technologies.

Since we know that Mars was habitable in the past, the next logical step is to look for biosignatures, traces of life on Mars. And obviously they are not clearly exposed at the surface so we will have to do little forensics. But when I look at the landscape around me and those cinters (sic) and hydrothermal springs I cannot help but think about our own planet and its beginning and primordial Earth that was pretty much looking like this. And it’s in an environment like that where life appeared on this planet.

And now I would like to share with you this flag. This flag I take with me everywhere where I go, this SETI Institute expedition flag #1. It was deployed last week at Salar de Pajonales. It is here today with a lot of wind as you can see, floating at El Tatio at close to 4,300 meters, over 14,000 feet. And the geyser is giving us some sort of a fireworks to end this video. Flag #2 is actually a few thousand kilometers south of here with Dale Andersen in Antarctica, and flag #3 flew about a week before we left on the SOFIA airplane with teachers and Pamela Harman and Bill Diamond.

I thank you very much for sharing this time with us, and I say on behalf of my team, thank you, have a very nice evening and maybe see you soon at the SETI Institute. Goodbye.