Early Habitable Environments and the Evolution of Complexity Principal Investigator - David J. Des Marais

EPO - National Park Service

Sandy Dueck, Lead Co-Investigator

/  The Lassen Chronicles and Photo Slideshows  /  Assignments and Resources  /

Students Trained in Fieldwork Collect Data for Astrobiology Team

The NASA Astrobiology Institute Ames Team and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California have formed a mutually beneficial partnership with Red Bluff High School to collect scientific data for NASA astrobiologists, the National Park Service and university researchers.

Students in the Lassen Astrobiology Internship Program are trained in lab and field work in order to provide a valuable research database for environments relevant to Mars exploration. Lassen is a valuable resource to NASA because of its parallels with volcanism on Mars. This volcanic national Students working in the labpark provides access to many extreme environments that host microbial communities. Little information is available about the diverse thermal features and microbial populations throughout Lassen, therefore, documentation of these features by student interns will provide a valuable database for future research. NASA is also interested in this national park because the volcanic activity at Lassen shares certain characteristics with past volcanic activity on Mars. In collaboration with the NASA Ames Team and Lassen, the student interns are studying the microbes in the hydrothermal features at Lassen as a way of understanding if microbial life could have ever existed in a similar hydrothermal system on Mars. The Spirit Rover found evidence of hydrothermal deposits near a volcano on Mars, which is why there could have been hot springs operating in the past.

Since the program's beginning in September 2008, high school students from Red Bluff High School in Tehama County, California, have been selected to participate in the Astrobiology Student Internship Program. NASA Ames Team members Dave Des Marais, Linda Jahnke, Niki Parenteau, Mike Kubo and Sandy Dueck, along with Lassen ranger and education specialist Steve Zachary, and Red Bluff science teacher Dave Michael, have worked together to train the science- and engineering-minded juniors and seniors in lab and field work and sample collection techniques.

NASA Mars Science Laboratory

Students receive structured training in a series of classroom, laboratory and field exercises designed to provide an introduction to astrobiology, address field safety when working around hydrothermal features and teach them how to use pH meters and other field sampling equipment.

Taking samples in the snow

With guidance, the astrobiology interns hike and snowshoe to sampling sites throughout Lassen measuring pH and temperature of all thermal features encountered, doing digital documentation and analyzing approximately four water samples per site. Examples include an initial sample from local surface runoff before it encounters thermal features (i.e. boiling springs) and additional samples as pH decreases as water exits the thermal feature.

Students taking various samples in Lassen

The interns have been divided into two research groups: geology/water and water/biology. These groups characterize how volcanic rocks are weathered or dissolved by meteoric input and by hydrothermal activity. The weathering ultimately releases chemical species into solution that microbes living in the hydrothermal systems can utilize. The interns are focusing on four distinct field sites with the goal of understanding how the rocks influenced the water chemistry at each site, which in turn dictates what microbial populations are present.

The geology/water group collects water samples to determine the major cations and anions in solution. They compare these data to the elemental analyses of the igneous rocks, as well as gases and aqueous species contributed by hydrothermal activity, to understand the sources of the dissolved chemical species in the water. The water/biology group then use these data to help inform which type of microbes were likely to occur in each spring, and what type of metabolism they were performing.

In addition to analyzing the field data, the interns perform experiments in the lab to try to replicate the acid weathering of the rocks in the field and demonstrate microbial oxidation of sulfur and iron species.

Students record information from sample sites

The end product provided from the student research is a database which includes thermal feature physical characteristics: pH, temperature, coordinates, digital documentation and water analysis. It is anticipated that this material will provide a valuable resource for extreme environment analog research in support of NASA missions.

The foremost goal of the Astrobiology Student Internship Program is to provide dynamic, hands-on astrobiology learning to high school students in preparation for college or entry into the workforce. This is accomplished by introducing students to the field of astrobiology (a compilation of astronomy, planetary science and biology) and the opportunity to work with NASA scientists in the field.

Join the astrobiology student interns in their science lab and at Lassen Volcanic National Park by following The Lassen Chronicles to track their progress and to view photo slideshows of their experiences.

Visit the Lassen Astrobiology Student Intern Assignments and Resources page for astrobiology-related assignments that will be given throughout the school year.

---Sandy Dueck, Lead Co-Investigator

Educational Resources
National Park Service: Yellowstone National Park
California Academy of Sciences
Choctaw Nation's Jones Academy
NASA Digital Learning Network
University of California, Santa Cruz, Astrobiology Course