The Foundation gave awards in 2006 with a total of $1,400

Astrobiological implications of hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere interactions at Icelandic hot springs
Category: Using environments on Earth to understand other worlds / exobiology
Institution: Cardiff University, Edinburgh University.

Mineral depositing hot springs are prime astrobiological targets because on Earth hot springs support abundant microbial populations which are fossilized by minerals precipitating from their spring waters. Fossilization creates rocks with identifiable structural and/or molecular markers for biological activity which are durable over geological timescales. Increasingly, frozen environments (cryosphere) are also seen as potential havens of extraterrestrial life. This project aims to explore interactions at the interface between the biosphere, cryosphere and hydrosphere in a Mars-like setting. Martian hot spring systems are most likely to be “rooted” in basaltic crustal rocks, this would favour the formation of mixed silica, carbonate and iron oxide hot spring deposits at the Martian surface. Of Earths’ major geothermal areas Iceland which has basaltic volcanism provides the closest analogue to this setting.

Specifically this project aims to:

  • - Establish by field observation the extent to which cryogenic conditions influence mineral precipitation processes at Icelandic springs and investigate processes that influence their formation and distribution.
  • - Test the hypothesis that microbial fossilisation is associated with mixed mineral phases generated by cryogenic processes by collection of geothermal water samples, ice samples containing cryogenic precipitates and cryogenic sediments for analytical and microscopic investigations.
  • - Test the idea that microbes may survive sequentially being immersed in hot spring water and then supercooled extremely saline water in brine channel environments by attempting to culture microbes from hot spring derived ice.

The ground-based imaging of volcanogenic sulphur dioxide
Category: Using environments on Earth to understand other worlds / exobiology
Institution: University of Bristol

The measurement of volcanic gases provides important information with regards to understanding and anticipating volcanic activity. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) in particular lends itself as a good target because of its abundance in volcanic emissions and its unique absorption signature in the ultra-violet (uv) wavelength band (approximately 300nm – 315nm). This project used a new powerful camera that makes use of uv filters to record SO2 absorbance in the atmosphere as a 2-D image. By doing so, it offers a view much like a satellite perspective, but also benefits from the portability and temporal/spatial resolution of ground-based technology.

The camera was employed at the three volcanoes of Pacaya, Fuego and Santiaguito in Guatemala, Central America. Imagery captured a variety of plume phenomena including passive degassing, volcanic “puffing” and intermittent gas-rich and ash-rich explosions. The processing of the image sequences revealed interesting patterns of plume dispersal. Initial results were promising, if challenging to validate. Further modelling of atmospheric effects will improve an already very powerful research tool into a reliable volcanic gas-monitoring device.

The use of satellite imagery in identifying cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoise) ‘hotspots’ in Pakistani waters, and its potential for implementation for marine conservation.
Category: Use of space technology to maintain the Earth as an Oasis
Institution: The University Marine Biological Station, Millport (UMBSM), UK.

The study of cetaceans in their natural environment is a challenging task because we see little of their behaviour at the surface and we do not fully understand the complex environment that they inhabit. In a three-year study of cetaceans in Pakistani waters the project applied satellite imagery to assist in environmental monitoring and assessment of habitat use by cetaceans. The satellite imagery was used to look at the relationship between GPS data from boat-based cetacean sightings with Sea Surface Temperature (SST) using NOAA’s Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR), and with primary productivity (chlorophyll-a) using NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). These data were combined with environmental variables, which include depth, slope, and aspect to allow the project to interpret, which, if any of these features do effect the distribution of the several endangered cetacean species that inhabit these waters.

Using this approach, the project can allow researchers to identify and model habitat preferences in regions that are known or considered to be cetacean ‘hotspots’. These ‘hotspots’ can then become focal areas for concentrated research with the overall aim of designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). This is a relatively new technique in the field of marine ecology and has already shown to be a valuable tool in assisting in the decision making process of implementing conservation and management initiatives.