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Expedition to highest active volcano unearths clues about life on other worlds
by Christian Vitry for CUB News
Boulder CO (SPX) Mar 09, 2022

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A harsh sun shines down through a cloudless sky, across a vast and unforgiving landscape. It's covered in gray rock, giant ice sculptures and expansive fields of spiky, yellow and orange bushes. In the distance, intimidating mountain peaks dominate the desolate scene, many miles from the nearest town. Yet alpacas roam freely and flamingos seek out scarce water, both unexpected sights in this wild world.

The extreme environment resembles something from a sci-fi film or another planet, but it's right here on Earth, on the flanks of the world's highest active volcano, 22,615-foot Ojos del Salado. Here, on the border of Argentina and Chile, a team of CU Boulder scientists seek to discover how tiny organisms persist at one of the driest and highest points on the planet.

Supported in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society, the first-of-its-kind project may ultimately help inform the search for existing and extinct life on other planets.

"There's been almost no scientific studies on this volcano. So it's a new frontier in terms of geology, microbiology and the environment itself," said project lead Brian Hynek, professor of geological sciences and research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

For three weeks in December, Hynek was joined by Adam Solon, graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Amanda Steckel, graduate student in geological sciences and LASP, as the first researchers to ever explore and survey this high up on the Argentinian side of the mountain. Project co-leader Steve Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Nick Dragone, graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, are now hard at work analyzing the samples they brought back. And a second trip is in the works.

The team's previous research on neighboring volcanoes suggests this trip will provide valuable insights about the microbiology and flow of chemical elements through this habitat, which mimics those of the past on neighboring planet Mars and possibly the present of Jupiter's fourth largest moon, Europa.

Training for great heights
While they didn't plan to spend much time at the summit, the team had to prepare for a base camp at 19,000 feet and to conduct research at 21,000 feet-the highest any of them have ever climbed.

That high up, oxygen is scarce. So in the months leading up to the trip, they often hiked and camped near Leadville, Colorado-the highest incorporated city in North America, at over 10,000 feet-to acclimate and break in their mountaineering boots.

Next, getting to Ojos del Salado was its own challenge, taking them two days and multiple flights to get to Northern Argentina, two days drive from the jungle to the high desert, and a day-and-a-half journey on a rough four-wheel-drive road to the base of the volcano at 19,000 feet. From there, the team climbed through the frigid night to over 21,000 feet, where they conducted their research.

From life on Ojos to life on Mars
Once settled in high above the Atacama Desert, the team set out to conduct research in an environment which closely mimics that of ancient Mars. Extremely dry conditions, high levels of ultraviolet radiation, large day-to-night temperature swings and limited water are all elements that make Ojos del Salado an ideal analog to the red planet.

"Going to places on Earth that mimic either the chemistry or the physics or volcanic conditions of early Mars can help us understand it better," said Hynek, a National Geographic explorer. "In the past, Mars probably was a lot like Ojos, and not as extreme as it is now. So by studying this, we can get a good glimpse at habitability on past Mars."

Hynek, a planetary geologist, was eager to examine the hydrothermal systems, steam vents, fumaroles and hot springs on the volcano. These are places where water and fluids interact with rocks, create minerals and can support microbial life from the energy involved in these chemical reactions.

Today, Mars is riddled with remnant minerals from these interactions. By documenting under what temperatures, pressures and chemistries these minerals are created here in Earth's extremes, Hynek can apply that information to what remains on Mars today. So when a rover or an orbiter discovers particular minerals on Mars, he and fellow scientists can deduce what historical conditions in those places must have been like to produce them-and if they could have also supported life.

"The ultimate question is whether this is a good place where life could have come about," said Hynek. "Because life on Earth probably started in hydrothermal systems, it's probably where it would have started on Mars. These are key targets for looking for life on our neighbor."

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