NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory working at Mono Lake

NASA has been coming to Mono Lake for many years, and they are back on our shores once again. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) team arrived last Sunday and set up a mobile laboratory in the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center parking lot for the week. The tiny space contains several labs, including a microbial analysis lab in a single portable box, and the hope is that this mobile lab will be able to be transported and utilized anywhere.

The NASA JPL team lowering equipment into Mono Lake to obtain a water sample. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

NASA JPL is here at Mono Lake as part of the Ocean Water Life Surveyor (OWLS) project. This project is working to prepare and fine tune their methods for a trip to Saturn’s and Jupiter’s moons, Enceladus and Europa, respectively. Both moons are covered in ice and it is suspected that there is a salty ocean underneath the surface. The main objective is to make it to these moons and test beneath the ice for signs of life.

Mono Lake’s unique chemical composition has made the lake the perfect spot to test for extremophiles. This week the NASA JPL team has been going out onto the lake to take water samples at depths of five meters and 35 meters to bring back to the mobile laboratory. They filter these samples, and then analyze them for any signs of life. The team is trying to find multiple different life signatures using the OWLS, including actual cells and their chemical signatures.

The eventual plan is to mount the OWLS to the side of a space ship, with the earliest launch possible in 2030 and the latest in 2050.

The Mono Lake Committee piloted our research boat to support the NASA JPL team during their visit. Photo by Bartshe Miller.

Top photo by Bartshe Miller.