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UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh
I’m Adam Stevens, currently a Postdoc at the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. I study the habitability of extraterrestrial environments using laboratory experiments, computer simulations and field analogues.
In the summer of 2015 I undertook the Short Term Scientific Mission titled “Icelandic lava fields as Mars analogue environments - life detection techniques.” The purpose of the field expedition was to test life-detection instrumentation in a Mars-analogue field site and use the instrumentation to assess how microbial colonization of a fresh lava field was progressing, following on from previous work we had done at the field site. The field site was the Fimmvorduhals lava field, which was formed in the 2011 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, a sub-glacial volcano in the south of Iceland.
Our field site had been studied in very early stages by another team (Kelly et al., 2014) and several years later by an earlier version of our field team on an expedition in 2013. We hoped to extend our previous results, which provided a foundation for the study of microbial diversity in the lava field (Amador et al., 2015).
We used a number of life-detection techniques, some of which had been used in our previous expedition: ATP immunoassay and quantitative PCR, both of which measure the abundance of biologically relevant molecules and provide information about the microbial community present in samples. We also used techniques relevant to future robotic life detection missions, including a Raman spectroscopy, a Vis-NIR spectrometer, a UV-Vis immersion spectrometer and a photographic quadcopter drone.
We were hosted in Iceland by the Icelandic Meteorological Office, who have extensive experience studying the lava fields and associated glaciers of Iceland, and our field lab was based in a local school that was generously made available to us by the community of Hvolsvollur. Unfortunately summer weather arrived late in Iceland in 2015 and there were still significant amounts of snow on the ground at higher elevations. This meant that our primary field site was not accessible and prompted us to reassess our expedition plans and move to backup field sites.
While we were still able to test our different instrumentation in the backup field sites and assess their viability for future life-detection missions, the science question of microbial diversity in previously uninhabitable environments was not able to be addressed as our backup field sites were much older and had already established and complex ecological communities.
However, we were able to take a lot of data and collect a large number of relevant samples, and the analysis associated with the expedition is still being carried out. Preliminary results show interesting trends but require further analysis and interpretation to fully understand. Our testing of instrumentation also raised important points about their use in future space missions. We hope to publish the results of these tests at some point in the future.
Amador, E. S., Cable, M. L., Chaudry, N., Cullen, T., Gentry, D., Jacobsen, M. B., Murukesan, G., Schwieterman, E. W., Stevens, A. H., Stockton, A., et al. (2015) 'Synchronous in-field application of life-detection techniques in planetary analog missions', Planetary and Space Science, Vol In Press, pp.
Kelly, L., Cockell, C., Thorsteinsson, T., Marteinsson, V. and Stevenson, J. (2014) 'Pioneer Microbial Communities of the Fimmvörðuháls Lava Flow, Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland', Microbial Ecology, Vol 1-1