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Dr. Steve Grasby climbs up the sulphur spring. Four U of C researchers will camp close to the spring for two weeks to study it. Brrrr, hopefully they packed long underwear.
Courtesy Arctic Institute

Sulphur spring hints at alien life

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Rotten eggs don't usually create a pleasant smell, but for one University of Calgary researcher, the odious odour signaled a discovery that may help NASA researchers find life on other planets.

U of C Arctic Institute executive director Dr. Benoit Beauchamp first discovered the source of the noxious odour--a bacteria-containing sulphur spring on Ellesmere Island--in 1999. Beauchamp and a team of researchers are returning to the spring June 21, to spend two weeks researching the unique conditions that allow the bacteria to survive in a sub-zero, pitch-black environment.

Beauchamp explained the unique environmental conditions in the spring caught the interest of NASA.

"It was a true sulphur spring coming out of the ice, but the exciting thing was the bacteria living in the ice," said Beauchamp. "NASA got ahold of our paper. They saw it as an example of what life might be like on Jupiter's moon Europa."

NASA believes Europa's close proximity to Jupiter may produce a gravitational pull immense enough to create tides under the frozen surface of the moon, which would keep some water from freezing. These underground seas could harbour life. As such, NASA plans to send a probe to Europa, but not before testing their probe at the sulphur site discovered by Beauchamp.

Canadian researchers are equally interested in the sulphur spring. Before NASA moves in, Beauchamp, U of C geologist Dr. Steve Grasby and two graduate students will make the long trek north to study the spring, with funding from the Canadian Space Agency, the Planetary Society and the Polar Continental Shelf Project.

"We'll be spending two weeks in small tents and really wild camping," said Beauchamp. "We're there to understand the geological system that leads to such a spring and to monitor what the spring is doing. We'd like to get the DNA sequencing of the bacteria."

Beauchamp noted there are about 20 different kinds of bacteria in the spring. While the team would ideally like to map all 20, DNA sequencing is very expensive, so they are limited by funding.

Before the U of C team can begin their research, getting to and working in such a remote location is a task in itself, and transportation alone costs approximately $5,000 per person. The four-person team will begin their journey by flying from Calgary to Ottawa and then from Ottawa to Resolute Bay, the most northern point in Canada to which commercial planes fly.

"We take a Twin Otter from [Resolute Bay]," explained Beauchamp. "We land about five to 10 kilometres away and there will be a helicopter to take us to the camp site. It's summer so there will be 24 hours of daylight and it's next to a glacier, so it's never warm."

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