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The Kid Should See This

Why is NASA interested in Yellowstone National Park?

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The Grand Prismatic Spring, a marvel of Yellowstone National Park, is not only the largest hot spring in the United States but also the third-largest in the world. Nestled in the Midway Geyser Basin, this visually stunning geothermal feature is a testament to the park’s diverse and unique landscape.

The spring gets its name from its rings of vibrant color. The outer edges feature red, orange, and yellow shades, gradually transitioning to green and finally blue at the center. The brilliant hues result from different temperature ranges that support various thermophiles—”thermo” for heat and β€œphile” for lovers.

Could these microbes be the key to discovering “alien” life on other planets? NASA wants to find out.

the deep blue and green
From Atlas Obscura, in partnership with Nature and PBS Digital Studios, watch this PBS Terra: Untold Earth episode. From NASA-funded researcher Eric Boyd, Microbiology and Cell Biology Professor at Montana State University:

“The bedrock here in Yellowstone is really silica-rich. So these fluids come out saturated in silica. Now, the silica refracts sunlight, blue sunlight, and that’s why you see it as blue.

“And as that water fans out towards the margins of that spring, it’s cooling off. And then all of a sudden you see this transition in color to orange, to yellow, to green. And essentially what you’re looking at there is a transition between different microbial groups, all photosynthetic, that make different pigments to harvest sunlight…”

orange and rust colors

“NASA’s very interested in studying extremophiles because if you understood the environment that led to the emergence of life on Earth, and you could say, ‘Well, if everything else is the same on another planet, I should expect to find life there too.’

“And so if we understand how life originated on Earth, we can use that to also narrow our search for life on another planet.”

Author and photographer Jeff Henry and park historian Lee Whittlesey contribute to the story, including when Henry ventured out onto the scalding spring in a specially-built, fiberglass-coated plywood rowboat called Little Dipper.

In the boat out on the Grand Prismatic Spring
Boyd also shares that, thanks to microbiologist Tom Brock, the rapid PCR test “has its roots in the hot springs of Yellowstone.

Watch these handpicked videos next:
β€’ Hidden volcanoes and superheated deep-sea vents on A Perfect Planet
β€’Β The mysterious origins of life on Earth
β€’ Why does Australia have hundreds of bright pink lakes?
β€’Β Are we thinking about alien life all wrong?
β€’Β Can life thrive without the sun?
β€’ How do you find water bears (tardigrades) in the wild?

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