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Underwater Laser Scanner Deployed in Antarctica Provides Insights to Early Life on Earth

The Geology Department of the University of California Davis is conducting research into the early life on earth through funding from NASA Astrobiology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology. The oldest fossils of life consist of stromatolites, which are millimetre to meter high structures created by the growth of bacteria. The shapes of stromatolites reflect both environmental and biological processes. Research is being conducted on the bacterial structures in ice-covered lakes in Antarctica because they have similar shapes to fossil bacterial communities. Using the ULS-100 Dr. Dawn Sumner and her team from UC Davis and the SETI Institute were able to successfully capture digital 3D models of the structure of these organisms. With this data her team quantitatively defined the shapes of the living bacterial communities for comparison with fossilized specimens.




ULS-100 Deployed in Challenging Environment

The team arrived in Antarctica in mid October 2010 and during their 6 week expedition captured scans at 3 sites within Lake Joyce. The lake is covered by 5m of ice and a 1m diameter hole was cut to allow divers and equipment access to the lake bed. The ULS-100 was mounted to a tripod and diver deployed through the hole in the ice to a depth of approximately 12m in the near zero degree Celsius water. With the sensor secure and in position, the scanner was operated from the surface and data collected for analysis.




New Data Collection Tool Can Lead to New Understandings

Upon their return from the Antarctic expedition Dr. Sumner and her team have begun to analyze the Underwater Laser Scanner data they have collected. By comparing the scans with fossils of similar prehistoric growths, the team can get a better understanding of how these shapes formed and behaved. Understanding how the structures grow by comparing scans over a period of time on future expeditions will also provide additional incites. This level of analysis was made possible by the high resolution scanning capability of the ULS-100 and will allow for new information and comparisons to be performed which were previously impossible.

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