Sub Operations day 1

By Allison Bradi – PLPR science lead from University of Calgary

I’m sure many of you have heard the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Well, sometimes you learn the most when you take something apart and have to put it back together again. We knew that moving to Kelly Lake from Pavilion would provide some challenges and yesterday as our first day of DeepWorker flight operations, we certainly faced a few hiccups. The navigation software had a few bugs and wasn’t talking to the subs. This was problematic as it meant that although we’d still be able to get video from the subs, we wouldn’t be able to track them as they moved around the lake. One of our main goals at Kelly is to map the distribution and morphological variation of the microbialites at the lake and without the ability to track the subs, we wouldn’t be able to identify the location of images that are collected in order to build our map. But, the scientist pilots themselves are also a valuable source of observational information that should not be overlooked and so we decided to go ahead with the flight of at least one of the subs so that we could gather some input about the microbialites and proceed with our science. With that decision made, Sub 7 was away and happily exploring the eastern shore of Kelly Lake. The flight started off under cloudy weather but soon the sun cleared and it must have brought some good luck with it as the navigation software also starting working shortly thereafter and we were able to get tracking for the majority of the flight path. In the end, we didn’t complete our DeepWorker missions quite as planned and Sub 6 was unfortunately not launched. Sometimes science doesn’t go as planned and you need to roll with the punches, we learned a lot and Day 2 of the DeepWorker operations is expected to benefit from these lessons learned and is expected to go a lot smoother. Stay tuned!

Monitoring operations from the Mobile Mission Control Center (MMCC)

The science backroom team operations

By Jennifer Biddle PhD- Researcher at University of Delaware

I’m so excited to be officially joining the PLRP team this year as part of the science team. I got excited about astrobiology in graduate school and after my PhD, was a NASA Astrobiology Institute postdoctoral fellow. When I became a professor, I kept looking for ways to stay involved in NASA and astrobiology science. I collaborate with the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Penn State University and now am part of the PLRP team!

I typically do deep sea research, so the PLRP approach of using manned submarines is not too unusual to me. What is unusual is that we’re taking an analog mission approach to the science and exploration – complete with a mobile mission command center. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of infrastructure that the team has had to create in order to do their work, including setting up wifi in remote places and running video feeds across miles. Typically my research done on a ship has communications already on it – we just hop on and do science. Coming to a remote (and beautiful!) site in British Columbia certainly presents challenges.

Today I got my full immersion into PLRP science and headed up the science backroom team for the third dive in Kelly Lake. One disadvantage of a single manned sub is that only one person is seeing and observing things in real time. Maybe they can take a video, but the rest of us might wait hours to see it. That means decisions are slowed and science might be impeded. So this year the team designed a way to have a sub tethered to a cable, sending video feeds to the surface – and then the coms team has been able to shoot video back to the mobile mission command center. What this means is that many of us scientists can sit in comfort and see and hear what the pilot of the sub is observing. That way we can confer on what we are seeing immediately, add extra sets of eyes to a busy pilot and give advice or opinions on what is happening. Really what we did was sit back and go “Cool!” when a lovely microbialite would pop up on the screen.

We additionally got a true mission-feel when we started doing delayed communications. If an astronaut is off of the Earth, it takes a while to talk to them! So even though our sub pilot was only a few kilometers away, we gave ourselves a delay to see how things would go. Not surprisingly, it did seem easier – doesn’t your job go better when your “boss” stops interrupting you? But we’ll see how well it works when we actually want samples. Maybe 10 brains are better than one – maybe not! It’s part of this week’s experiments. My final experiments won’t be done for a while. We are collecting samples from Pavilion and Kelly Lakes to continue to describe the microbial communities that are in the microbialites. My group is specifically interested in the phototrophic (light-harvesting) communities, who we expect are driving the distinct shapes we see in these structures. Our work is in progress, so now updates yet – but watch for later updates as we start to unravel the mysteries of these beautiful and mysterious microbialites!

Science team at the Mission Control Room


Pavillion Lake, Microbialites, DNA and British Columbia

by Joe Russell – PhD student from University of Delaware studying Microbiology

Most days I do science in a bright, cluttered (yet clean), indoor laboratory. Right now, I am sitting on the shore of a pristine lake in British Columbia, waiting for samples of microbialites. Long days and late nights in lab is what you pay the piper for sample collections in beautiful, remote locations.

What I knew of British Columbia was what I saw during the Vancouver Olympics and a handful of nature shows. It was beautiful, with tall mountains, good skiing, and killer whales. What I didn’t know was how diverse and rugged the landscape would be. I flew into Vancouver and drove a rental car up to our field site along with my advisor, Dr. Jen Biddle. We passed through the city into tall snow-capped peaks covered in conifers. Beautiful, but about what I expected for BC. My expectations were quickly dashed. Lush forests spit waterfalls down into the Fraser River. Within an hour or two, the conifers gave way to more rock outcroppings, and eventually huge, sheer cliffs with rocks of all different colors. The vegetation changed to more bristly, desert flora. Winding streams worked their way through distant pastures, dotted with gnarled trees, horses, and cows; eventually all spilling into the Fraser, a constant throughout our drive. As we approached the town of Clinton, our base of operations for this expedition, the conifers returned, although this time in different arrangements. The dense coastal firs, spruces, and hemlocks gave way to more sparse cedars and ponderosa pine forests that populated steep, rocky canyons. Tucked away deep in the folds of these ancient canyons are two very unique and exciting lakes.

Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake are home to a fantastic display of microbialites. A fun, quirky, inspired (from what I’m beginning to see) group of scientists with a variety of backgrounds have descended on these lakes to study these structures because they may hold answers to some of the most profound questions we can ask. What did some of the earliest life on this planet look like? How did it survive and evolve? The fossil records show that for a couple billion years of our planets history, life existed similarly to how it does on the microbialites of Pavilion and Kelly Lake. If these structures were such an important first step in Earth’s life history, might they also be something to look for when we eventually explore other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond? As a microbiologist, with a strong interest in astrobiology, these questions floor me. To be here in this beautiful countryside searching for answers is what some refer to as “pinch me” moments.

My role here is to help understand the bacterial communities that live on the surface of the microbialites, and from what we can tell, drive their formation. I have spent the past few days taking part in planning and execution of submersible dives and sample collection. Once samples arrive at base camp, I extensively document what I see. Interesting features such as curious green and purple nodules that may be the site of carbonate formation on the surface of the microbialites are sub-sampled and examined under the microscope. Larger chunks of microbialite are carefully bagged and frozen for shipment back to the lab at the University of Delaware. There, I will extract DNA to study the microbial population of these structures on the genomic level to determine which members of this population are most important at different depths. This study highlights one of the unique attributes of Kelly Lake and Pavilion Lake. Microbialites are found in a handful of places around the globe yet these lakes are the only environment where they are found at such a variety of depths (thus differential access to light). It is our hope that these varying growth environments within the lake will be able to highlight distinct attributes of microbialites that made them so successful on early Earth and could possibly aid their formation on other planetary bodies.

Diving for Microbioliate samples