Meet the young scientist who’s dedicating his life to studying life on Mars – all right here in Earth’s own Yellowstone National Park.
If you’re a David Bowie fan, now’s an excellent time to cue up “Life on Mars.” Like Bowie, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most colorful offerings our planet has ever offered up. The park’s backcountry, in particular, is alight with brilliant hot springs – ones that truly look out of this world.
It’s no wonder, in turn, that scientists have taken to Yellowstone’s pools to study how life develops in the most extreme of habitats. And what could be more extreme than life on Mars?
This is where budding scientist Andrew Gangidine comes in. His field of study is every bit as interesting – and intense – as spelling his last name, too. Gangidine is a geologist with the University of Cincinnati, and he’s becoming one of the world’s foremost leaders in extraterrestrial life. Or how it may develop on Mars, at least.
“We’re trying to answer age-old questions of ‘are we alone in the universe?’ and ‘how did we get here?’” Gangidine tells Outside Magazine. “Until now, we haven’t had the technology or means to answer it.”
Yellowstone offers Earth’s closest look at Mars
He’s not in it for the views, either. Yellowstone’s hot springs may look like alien rainbow-brites, but each is rife with toxic fumes and boiling, searing waters. The air itself isn’t even safe to breathe for more than a short period. If he takes in too much, Gangidine is looking as severe fatigue – or complete asphyxiation. In short: his work could kill him.
Gangidine’s forefathers identified the intense pools of Yellowstone as the closest thing Earth has left to the “chemical soup” that may have birthed all life as we know it on planet Earth. While we can never be sure what that looked like 3.5 billion years ago, these natural wonders do offer up our closest second. Outside summarizes it best, noting:
“The hot-spring microbes and their fossils are similar to ancient bacteria. In Yellowstone, Gangidine is studying those microbial fossils to find biosignatures, elements that show evidence of past life because organisms consume or excrete them or otherwise interact with them. And that work could help us find signs of life on other planets.Outside Magazine
As a result of the dangers, Gangidine is very careful not to spend more than three days sampling the pools at a time. The soils on site also contain large amounts of arsenic. Coming into contact with the chemical can burn straight through your clothes – and skin.
“You’ll take a knee to pick something up off the ground… And then later that day there are holes in the knees [of your pants],” he recounts. Ah, the price of science.
Yellowstone Perils: “Bison don’t stop for science”
Thankfully, though, if Gangidine ever makes it to Mars in person, there wont be any Yellowstone bison. The megafauna are all over Yellowstone, as any visitor to the park will note – and their lives don’t stop for the sciences.
During one of his early summers of work, wolves began chasing a massive herd of bison through fields Gangidine was working in. Fully aware of their penchant to charge any perceived threat, the scientist and his team had to re-map their entire study through uncharted territory to accommodate the massive mammals. In doing so, Gangidine dropped his foot straight through the ground into a toxic mud puddle. He became caught up to his knee.
“Luckily, it didn’t burn me,” Gangidine recalls. Citing the ever-changing wilderness of Yellowstone, he notes this near-catastrophe shows “how fast the ground can change out there. If I were by myself, I don’t know if I could have been able to get out of it.”
Luckily, his fellow scientists pulled him out, and Gangidine lives to study on.
[H/T Outside Magazine]