A yellowish, sulphur-stained patch of ice and snow on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, is a unique physical feature that's been studied for years by NASA researchers, has now produced a potential "biosignature" test, for a future probe of life on Jupiters Europa moon.
Ellesmere Island's yellow stain is known to be caused by an
exceedingly rare geochemical reaction between the sulphurous
minerals welling up from below a glacier and the cold-loving
bacteria present on Canada's northernmost land mass.
In 2010, a Canada-U.S. research team discovered that the coloured ice can be pinpointed by infrared sensors housed in an orbiting spacecraft. Detailed in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, that study showed how detection devices aboard NASA's EO-1 Earth Observing satellite were able to filter images to isolate the unusual chemical activity happening at Borup Fiord's sulphur spring.
Scientists believe Europa's icy crust might be covering a sea of liquid water that could sustain alien organisms, and they consider the bizarre phenomenon on Nunavut's Borup Fiord Pass to be a potential analogue for biological activity that might be happening on Jupiter's mysterious moon.
Then, last year, another international team of researchers
identified the species of micro-organism — marinobacter — that's key to the coloration.
Several other sites in the Canadian Arctic also have been studied by scientists searching for ways to detect life in harsh extraterrestrial environments, such as Mars.
The Haughton meteorite crater on Devon Island, north of Baffin
Island, has been the site of a long-running Mars-related research project backed by NASA and various Canadian research centres.
And in 2010, a team of Canadian scientists announced they had discovered a species of unique, methane-eating microbes living in a salty spring on Nunavut's Axel Heiberg Island, off the southwest coast of Ellesmere.
That find at Lost Hammer Spring was hailed as proof that similar organisms could have survived in such inhospitable conditions on ancient Mars — and could even be living there today.