NASA researchers are studying “Mars-like” salt lakes in Western Australia in their hunt for extra-terrestrial life. Experts from the United States say the region, with its pink-hued water and distinctive trees, is more like Mars than almost any other location on Earth.
The Yilgarn Craton is a vast mineral-rich region about 400 kilometers east of Perth in Western Australia.
Yilgarn is a word used by the area’s indigenous people to describe quartz. The region has been the focus of exploration and mining, but scientists believe it could harbor clues about the universe and life on other planets.
Western Australia’s acidic lakes are said to mimic conditions on ancient Mars. Three-billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia are some of the oldest on Earth and academics believe they are about the same age as those on the Red Planet.
A team of U.S. experts, supported by local Indigenous elders, are investigating how so-called “hyper-saline environments” — or places with lots of salt — are not only present-day ecosystems, but how they preserve a record of the past.
Associate Professor Britney Schmidt, from Cornell University in New York state, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the project is funded by NASA, the Washington-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“We are members of the Oceans Across Space and Time project, which is a program funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program and we are out here studying analogues, or examples, of what we think ancient Mars might have been like. So, Western Australia’s unique because it has very, very old rocks. So, here in the Yilgarn Craton somewhere around two to three million years old as well as highly acidic water, and so those two combinations are things that we see on the surface of other planets. So, it is really unique,” she said.
The U.S. team of researchers has been working with indigenous elders, who have explained the region’s so-called “dreaming stories,” which chart the creation of the land by ancestral spirits.
There are many big questions to answer; if life can survive in toxic and hyper-saline environments in Western Australia, could it have existed in extreme conditions on other planets?
We may never find out, but together science and traditional knowledge could yield valuable clues.
Much of the data will help to craft Ph.D. and master’s theses when the team returns to the United States.