How NASA And A Marine Robotics Firm Will Change Space Exploration

Working side-by-side with Nanaimo-based underwater robotics firm Seamor Marine, a team from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working on a project which could play a critical role in future space exploration missions. More specifically, scientists from both teams are looking to develop enhanced technology for the measurement and analysis of life (and a planet's ability to support it). To that end, the NASA team was in Nanaimo last week, preparing to begin work at Pavilion Lake.

Located in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, the lake is notable for being the home of a number of microbialites, and as such has been the subject of a great deal of research over the course of the past decade.The work now being done there by NASA and Seamor at first began modestly, as small-scale research with the aim of determining why the lake supports microbialites. Since then, the project has expanded - a second phase saw the team mapping and examining the structures created by the microbialites, while in the third phase researchers focused on the creatures themselves. 

So what does all this have to do with space travel? 

Simple: microbialites are known to be one of the most ancient forms of life on Earth, and tend to thrive in conditions that other creatures would find near-impossible to survive. That they exist in the freshwater Pavilion Lake at all is something of a mystery, one which according to NASA demonstrates that "large and uniquely-shaped structures can occur in non-extreme environments that also support fish, plants, and other species." I'm sure you can do the math here: finding stromatolites on other planets is a clear indication that they either supported life at one point in their history or still do. 

"We can't go back in time to figure out how those bacteria built those structures, but we can look at modern analogues or comparison points to understand the physical, chemical and biological means by which these structures are built," explained aquatics scientist Darlene Lim. The team will this year begin studying the development of modern microbialites, noting their relationship with light and depth as well as the physical properties they mapped out during their project's previous phases. They're also going to be examining why microbialites don't grow in any lakes other than Pavilion and Kelly. 

They'll be assisted in this endeavor by a fleet of Seamor's remotely-operated vehicles in what NASA refers to as "a robotic precursor mission." The implication, of course, is that the technology being used in Pavilion Lake could eventually be adapted for space exploration. For the time being, however, it's simply an important factor in providing the research team with a sense of perspective and scale. 

"Everything we do underwater, from the science, the actual act of doing the science to the precursor robotic mission, to the robotic assistant role of the Seamor ROV, has a very direct line of sight to human exploration in the future, whether that's on the moon or if it's on an asteroid or the moons of Mars or Mars itself," Lim said.

If you'd like to learn more about the Pavilion Lake Project and Seamor Marine's role in it, you can visit the official website