If alien life is ever discovered, scientists expect it will most likely be of the simple, microbial variety. And now they've found some serious signs of such life, right here on Earth. And the clues and the methodology could help researchers find life on Jupiter's moon Europa.
In a pair of images released today -- one from NASA's EO-1 satellite and a closer one taken from a helicopter -- NASA researchers explained their examination of a glacier-carved valley that is like none other on Earth. The spot, high in the Canadian Arctic on Ellesmere Island, is called Borup Fiord Pass. It is the only known place on our planet where sulfur from a natural spring is deposited over ice.
The sulfur leaves a pale yellow stain on the ice, and scientists say it's a clear sign of biological activity.
The sulfur stain, clearly visible in the helicopter image, is not visible by regular satellite photography. But another sensor on the satellite, called Hyperion, makes measurements in wavelengths of light we can't see. Using this hyperspectral data from Hyperion scientists were able to map the location of sulfur deposits. In effect, they've seen clear signs of life from space.
What they learn from all this may help us find life elsewhere in the solar system, according to a statement from NASA.
At the Borup Pass spring, hydrogen sulfide gas in the water is converted to sulfur, the most common material in the deposit, or gypsum. The process is complex, but it most often occurs when microbes, such as bacteria, are present, scientists explained.
On Jupiter's moon Europa, scientists have found dark stains on the ice that have them wondering if they might be caused by a similar process. Europa is covered in a shell of water ice that's thought to hide an ocean of liquid water below. Liquid water is a key ingredient for life as we know it.
Now NASA has measurements, from Borup Pass pass, that the agency says could help researchers determine if the Europa stains were created by life.
"An orbiting sensor like Hyperion could be used to identify chemicals in Europa's non-ice deposits that may be a sign of extraterrestrial microbial life," NASA states.
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