AP, Mar 12,2004
Yellowstone National Park - A study of microscopic organisms that inhabit the park's hot springs may help NASA researchers in their efforts to find life on Mars.
The organisms, called thermophiles, have lived in the boiling waters of springs in Yellowstone National Park for billions of years.
By studying their fossil remains and how they have changed over time, scientists with NASA and Lockheed Martin Corp. are forming a picture of the history of life on Earth and the planet's climate, according to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.
Definitive evidence of life on the Red Planet may be found by comparing the fossil records of thermophiles on Earth to rocks found on Mars.
"Volcanic activity has interacted with water on Mars, as well as on Earth," said Dr. David Des Marais, a member of the Mars Rover Science Operations working group and lead of the astrobiology team. "Thermal springs like those in Yellowstone are natural oases for diverse life forms, and hot springs 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."
NASA's twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are exploring the history of climate and water at two Mars sites where conditions would have been suitable for life.
If the rovers uncover evidence of hot springs similar to those in Yellowstone, their discovery might pave the way for a future mission to discover the past existence of life on another planet, researchers said.
To give the public a glimpse into their work, NASA and Lockheed Martin have given the foundation a $66,000 grant to build outdoor interpretive exhibits for park visitors.
The exhibits will feature Yellowstone's hydrothermal features, describing them as extreme habits that may help explain the origins of life and provide clues in the search for life on other planets.
Installation of the new exhibits is expected to begin this summer. Future plans include educational pamphlets and indoor exhibits at the Visitor Education Center to be built at Old Faithful.
"Ultimately, the astrobiology-related exhibits will help visitors understand the multiple values of preserving a place like Yellowstone," said Linda Young, deputy chief of interpretation.
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