Sunday, February 15, 2015

Water, Hot and Cold III

(Continued from the preceding post)

(Mars courtesy of Google Images)

Perhaps it was the chalky white and the greens and golds of the cyanobacteria, their streamers and platelets that reminded me of work going on far, far away from our little desert project on the western edge of the Earth’s Great Basin. Could it be that it was in steamy pools such as this that life got its start on Earth and evolved into the rich, but now increasingly threatened diversity? In the depths of interplanetary space there are stirrings and activities that may point toward the possibility of life other than on Earth. 

On places called Titan, Enceladus, and Europa, spacecraft called Cassini and Galileo, infinitely small in the immensity of the cold solar abyss, supported by increasingly exact work with Earth and space-based telescopes probe for the possible presence of life-supporting habitats. Even further out, in December of 2014 NASA, announced that scientists using the Kepler telescope had discovered worlds circling distant stars that were very likely to host watery environments and a year earlier than that, in 2013 workers using the Hubble telescope discovered the possibility of water on distant worlds.  We now know that water is not as rare in the universe as we had once thought. But we don’t even have to look as far as the moons of the outer planets …closer to home robots Spirit and Opportunity wander the face of Earth’s sister Mars searching for signs of life in the now dry lake beds of Endeavour Crater and along the high ridges . On the saturnian moon Enceladus water is literally blown into space.

Given the immensity of the universe and the hundreds of millions of suns and their circling planets is it unlikely that life only happened and evolved on Earth? I think not. In our galaxy alone, the Milky Way, there are over 100 billion stars and ours is only one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe.  In our galaxy, how many planets lie in a zone where life is possible, the so-called Goldilocks Zone? The latest estimate, based primarily on the work with the Kepler telescope, holds that there are about 8.8 billion planets in The Milky Way where the temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for life. With each passing day and each new discovery it becomes more and more likely that life-sustaining planets, with suitable conditions exist in the universe, let alone our galaxy. The odds for life on other worlds are very, very good, almost overwhelming.  It is even possible that the signature for life will be discovered in the ancient muds of the now dry lake beds of Mars. Although it is increasingly unlikely, with each passing year, that I will live to witness the discovery that we are not alone, there is even an outside chance that such a discovery will take place during what remains of my life. However, after ¾ of a century the machinery of life is becoming frayed around the edges. But I am sure that someone living today will see the discovery of life somewhere else in the universe. I am positive of that. Perhaps it will be my grandchildren who were the first volunteers to work with me at the small thermal wetland on the edge of the Great Basin.

(Enceledus courtesy of Google Images)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Water, Hot and Cold II

(Continued from preceding post)

Water in arid lands is always understandably fascinating and attracts life in many forms. Coyote, the small wild

canid now found throughout much of the United States, frequently hunt  round this small thermal site, and deer bed down in the adjacent willows. An occasional opportunistic mountain lion might wander down from the high country passing by numerous other smaller species including, birds, rodents, and reptiles.  In deserts, there is always the possibility that springs and seeps will host unique species. Our work at these springs revealed nothing especially unique in terms of biota.
For as long as there have been humans here, we have visited these thermal springs.  

The Native American people, many of whom still live close by, sought healing in these waters.  In 1849, and later, miners seeking wealth in the California gold fields passed this site on their way over the Sierras and then again as they returned from California on their way to the hoped-for riches of nearby Goldfield, Silver City, and Virginia City.  Nearby, the Mormons built a structured in a community that was called Mormon Station and later Genoa. 

As we wander among the grass and rushes, stepping carefully between the steaming  outlets, it is hard not to wonder what others left moccasin prints and the impressions of hobnailed boots on this alkali encrusted slope above the small pool where the cooling waters collect. Something different has brought each one of us here…healing, a hot bath, food…and knowledge.

(Continued in the next post)