Searching for Ice-bound Life on Earth

Looking for Life in All the Cold Places

Europa and ocean
Europa may have a hidden ocean beneath its icy crust. A project to explore icy waters beneath Antarctic ice here on Earth may well help scientists explore this world and other icy moons in the search for life elsewhere. NASA

Life is a tenacious thing. It seems to thrive in the seemingly most inhospitable places on our planet: hot springs, volcanic vents at the ocean bottoms, acidic lakes, in the middle of rocks, beneath the surfaces of icy reservoirs, and in the windy, desiccated conditions of mountaintops. I say "seemingly" because I think for many decades (perhaps even centuries) scientists perhaps underestimated the stubbornness of living things to exist in places that WE think are inhospitable. Turns out, if you could ask a rock-dwelling microbe what it thinks is homey, the center of a chunk of rock is a prime piece of real estate. For a microbe. 

The same goes for the environments trapped beneath miles-thick layers of ice in Antarctica. While you and I might not like it in those wet, chilly places, there are microbes and plants and animals that think they are wonderful areas to put down roots and raise some spores.

The more we find life in what we think of as "weird" conditions on our planet, the more we have to expand our definitions of "habitable" to include those places. And, that opens scientists up to the consideration of life on other worlds deep in their oceans and beneath icy crusts. Or even on Mars, where it's possible that life exists in buried ice or rock. There was once water flowing on Mars, and it could have (or have had) life, too.

Now, many places on our planet aren't the easiest for us to get to, as many a scientist and explorer has found out. I'm reminded of stories about oil drilling experts running into weird ice-eating worms at the bottom of the ocean, in places where no human could easily go. Or, of videos and stills from deep-sea expeditions that revealed some of the oddest-looking creatures existing under pressures and temperatures that would kill a human. But, our equipment can get there, and that's what has helped us find out more about the life on this planet.

Studying the life forms in such out-of-the-way and frigid places gives scientists a pretty fine idea of what to look for when and if we get to send drills to icy moons in the outer solar system (for example) where other oceans in space exist.

Drilling for Living Things

Instead of drilling for oil, why not drill for life?  Drills can extend our studies to places where even the deep-ocean vessels can't go. Such exploration is the idea behind a NASA-funded project to be built at Louisiana State University called SPINDLE (which stands for Sub-glacial Polar Ice Navigation, Descent and Lake Exploration. It will be an autonomous robot built to withstand the cold temperatures (which makes it a cryobot) that exist beneath the very thickest ice sheets on the planet. It will also have a reconnaissance vehicle called HAUV (hovering autonomous underwater vehicle) that will search for life and collect samples. 

The LSU team first will figure out what questions they want to answer with this program. After that, they'll build the instruments and do their tests in the field before heading to a subglacial lake beneath the Antarctic shelf. 

Icy Life and Its Implications

The Antarctic exploration that will result from this project in a few years will certainly tell us about life in one of the most challenging habitats on our planet. However, it will also teach scientists how to look for life beneath the icy crusts of such outer worlds as Europa, identified as a prime exploration target for a robotic probe. How cool would it be to send a drilling unit down to its depths to see if life also arose there? Or perhaps on Jupiter's other icy moons?

The biggest challenge to outer planet explorations that dig beneath their icy surfaces is to find the right combination of equipment that gets the job done technologically and scientifically. The science team, which includes scientists from LSU as well as 11 other universities and research institutions, is well trained to trace the existence of life on Earth in such cold places. After that, they can extend our knowledge off-Earth. The search for living organisms doesn't start or end on Earth, but Earth is a great place to practice, and this project should expand our view of life on our own planet as well as help in the search in other places.