lake lander project impactThe Planetary Lake Lander project that will develop an adaptive probe as well as exploration strategies to explore the lakes of Titan, while monitoring the impact of deglaciation on terrestrial lake habitat and biodiversity in the Chilean Andes. In turn, results from this investigation are expected to provide insights into habitability and life potential on Mars during similar geological periods when glaciers were still present at the surface.

Using Technology Relevant to Titan’s Exploration to Investigate the Impact of Glacial Melt  on Past and Present Planetary Lakes

Project Overview  and Significance –

Ice is retreating and thinning worldwide (Figure 1). Glaciers and ice fields are expected to significantly shrink within a generation, and many of the lower-altitude glaciers could disappear during the next 10-20 years. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) lists the Central and Southern Andes as particularly vulnerable. In addition to the societal impact, deglaciation affects ecosystems and biodiversity. Glacier retreat creates new lakes and enlarges existing ones, and accelerated melting rates subject them to interseasonal and interannual variability, whose magnitude and impact on the lower trophic levels of the foodchain have yet to be evaluated. As deglaciation takes place, seasonal and interannual patterns are disrupted and important questions need to be answered to improve our forecasting of the future of glacial lake habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity, including:

(1) What are the disruptions associated with deglaciation, their frequency and magnitude?

(2) What is their impact on metabolic activity, ecosystem and biogeochemical cycles?  and,

(3) What is the response of glacial lake habitat, ecosystem, and biodiversity?

By addressing these questions, we will contribute to a better understanding of the changes currently affecting Earth’s glacial lake ecosystems, and also shed light on how life and habitats adapted and transitioned during past deglaciations on our planet. In the process, we will bring new insights into Mars habitability and life potential during comparable geological periods early in Mars history and later, during high-obliquity cycles when snow precipitation and glacier formation were possible. Investigating these lakes will also confront us with challenges presenting analogies to those faced by future missions to the planetary lakes and seas of Titan, thus giving us an opportunity to develop and test exploration strategies for future planetary lake landers (Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Our project addresses science questions of astrobiological significance for Earth and Mars while developing systems that will augment science and operational performance of planetary lake lander missions.

Deploying and remotely operating a lake lander will give operational experience to better understand technology, payload, and system constraints, and to develop solutions to overcome those in the design of future missions. Furthermore, disrupted environmental, physical, chemical, and biological cycles challenge us to identify new emerging natural patterns and to find the most productive methods to interrogate them rapidly. In many ways, the rapidity of Earth’s deglaciation confronts us with the same operational scenario as a planetary mission faced with only limited time to understand the environment and achieve its objectives. The priority for all time- bandwidth-, and often power-constrained planetary operations is to return the most informative data. To maximize return, such missions would greatly benefit from intelligent, adaptive systems that could rapidly establish environmental baseline, track changes as they happen, adapt their data collection rate to monitor them, and prioritize data return. Such systems would be applicable to a vast array of planetary missions by improving the ability of any robots to make decisions on their own between command cycles.

In response to these science questions and technology challenges, we will deploy a lake lander in the Central Andes of Chile, in an environment where ice is melting at an accelerated rate and changes occur now on a yearly basis. Our project will design and test exploration strategies relevant to the future exploration of Titan, while developing an adaptive system that will improve operational and science performance for any type of robotic mission. Both lake lander and adaptive system will be matured, tested, and validated synergistically over hundreds of continuous days of field operations in challenging environment. Changing natural cycles will give us the opportunity to test the ability of an adaptive system to recognize nominal and off-nominal events, to understand performance, capabilities, and efficiencies associated with the system, while enabling a science team to gain operational experience with it. Meanwhile, the resulting data will further the understanding of the astrobiological principles that are shaping the future of life on Earth, and have shaped it in the past on our planet, and also possibly on Mars.