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Welsh skills put Medusa probe on track to find life in Space.

Byline: By Sion Barry Western Mail

Welsh scientists are leading the way in the search for life on other planets.

American space agency Nasa has turned to Welsh expertise in its quest to find life in outer space.

Complex machinery designed and manufactured by experts at Cardiff University's Manufacturing Engineering Centre (MEC) is enabling Nasa scientists to develop a 'life detector' to look for exotic life forms under a sea that may exist on Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

Scientists are assembling a prototype life detection system called the Medusa at Oregon State University. Medusa is an instrument package which will sense life by analysing samples from severe environments on Earth similar to conditions on Europa, Mars and other planets in the solar system.

Small submarines will be used to carry Medusas to the bottom of the ocean research sites to gather scientific data.

Nasa scientist Michael Flynn said, 'Our goal is to find Earth life that exists in environments that are similar to conditions that we know exist on other planetary bodies.

'Identification of such life forms would help to build the case that extraterrestrial life could exist in our solar system.

'We are looking below the surface of Earth's oceans near hydrothermal vents because they could be similar to vents scientists theorise may be under an ice-covered ocean on Europa.'

A hydrothermal vent is a hole in the ocean floor where hot liquids, often containing minerals and gases, rise from subsurface magma.

Cardiff experts have utilised highly-sophisticated equipment in the centre to create components, including special conical flasks, for the storage and preservation of the sample microbes.

The flasks are built to withstand huge pressures externally in the depths of the world's oceans. They are also design to contain these pressures once they are recovered in the sampler at sea level. The flasks will ensure that microbes are not destroyed if exposed to atmospheric pressures at sea level.

Frank Marsh, marketing director of MEC, described the project with Nasa as a major coup.

'We have had six scientists working on this for several months and this is the first time to my knowledge that the centre has worked with Nasa,' said Mr Marsh.

'Our expertise will allow Nasa to carry-out sampling under extreme conditions in terms of pressure and temperature. The first test could be carried out, possibly in the Atlantic Ocean, next year.

'The expertise we have in the centre is truly exceptional. It has taken along time, but we are now being recognised by prestigious organisations like Nasa, which augurs well for the future.'

Nasa approached MEC after a recommendation from a third party. 'It took some tweaking of our existing technologies and equipment, but we are progressing extremely well,' said Mr Marsh

The study of life in extreme environments on Earth provides important facts that scientists can use in the search for extraterrestrial life. The ultimate source of energy for all known life forms on Earth comes from the sun. Scientists believe that for life to exist much farther away from the sun in places with thick ice crusts, such as Europa, life would need other sources of energy.

Sunshine by itself is not enough to support life on Europa.

However, if scientists can find a terrestrial example of a life form completely de-coupled from the sun, the case for life on Europa would be greatly strengthened.

Some scientists theorise that one environment that might foster life, independent of the sun, is in the deep subsurface of Earth.

This underground environment may contain organisms that exist solely on chemical energy that comes from off-gassing magma.

Hydrothermal vents may be openings into the subsurface community of life, or 'biosphere', Mr Flynn said. 'The goal of our work is to develop an instrument capable of testing this hypothesis. The Medusa system can monitor chemistry and biology in remote and harsh places.'

If tests progress well it is possible a Medusa device could be sent on a mission to other planets in a quest to prove the existence of extra-terrestrial life. Moonshot to frozen Europa could prove the existence of extra-terrestrial life: Europa is the smallest of Jupiter's four Galilean moons.

It was discovered in 1610.

It is named after Europa, one of Zeus's many love interests in Greek mythology, after whom the continent of Europe is also named.

It has an outer layer of water thought to be around 100km thick - a frozen upper crust of up to 30km deep covering a salty liquid water.

Its surface is thought to be 30m years old and, from space, is crisscrossed with hundreds of black lines, thought to be cracks in the ice up to 20km wide.

Life may exist under this surface.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 4, 2005
Words:784
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