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Colorado scientists brave active volcano for research

"It is telling us that a lot of the same chemistry, the same processes that are active at Poás today, were active on ancient Mars."

Some of the volcanic environments on earth are thought to be very similar to the surface of Mars billions of years ago.

So, naturally, researchers from the University of Colorado, hope to find clues to life on the red planet starting there.

“It’s a hot, sulphurous, very, very acidic lake, that’s situated right up in the summit crater of the volcano, at about 10,000 feet elevation,” said Brian Hynek, associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado.

The volcano, called Poás, is in Costa Rica.

“It’s more like a Mount St. Helens volcano. It doesn’t erupt that often, but when it does it has very significant eruptions,” said Hynek.

He and a postdoc assistant, Dr. Ramy El-Maarry, climbed into that volcano in the name of research in the spring of 2017.

“They are very foreign environments. The ground is just steaming all around you, and bringing up sulfur gas, and you got to wear your gas mask and protective gear,” Hynek said, who does his research through the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado.

You could say it looks like another planet in there, and that is actually why they were there. Hynek hopes to uncover clues to life on Mars.

“We target these hydrothermic systems because this might be where life arose on Earth, and perhaps could have also on Mars," Hynek said. "It is telling us that a lot of the same chemistry, the same processes that are active at Poás today, were active on ancient Mars."

Hynek said it was tough work. A lot of the samples needed to be taken by hand, and they were on a tight deadline, from a hidden time clock.

“Well working at the lake shore is particularly dangerous. Any small eruption, and you’ll get the wave surging over you, and likely be covered in boiling mud and Sulfur,” said Hynek.

Even without an eruption, volcano research can be dicey. Hynek was injured in another volcano before getting to Poás.

“Stepped in through a thin crust, and into a boiling acid lake, and had some second degree burns on my foot at the time we were at Poás. So I was a little uncomfortable, but you got to get the work done,” Hynek said.

The research is that important to Hynek, who said he believes that microbial life once existed on Mars, and said there is even a possibility of microbes still living deep below the surface.

"Certainly Mars had all the ingredients, the water, the heat sources, the energy sources, the nutrients when life was coming about on our planet, so it makes sense that life would have arisen there as well," said Hynek.

This was the second time that Hynek has done research inside of Poás. He was there back in 2013 doing similar research. This time he finished his work just in time. Poás popped right as they were leaving.

“So magma started rising up and flowing out onto the surface of the crater. The lake we were studying was entirely drained. Yeah, we were even delayed in flying back because ash was falling on our plane,” Hynek said.

Safe in Boulder now, Hynek just published a paper about the microbes he found in that volcanic lake, or you could say lack of microbial diversity. Hynek said he was very surprised to find just a single species of the bacterial genus Acidiphilium dominating that landscape.

Hynek said he plans to revisit Poás when its temper cools back down for more research, and if anything, to see if those unique microbes survived the eruption. He said he does know that the lake they were living in no longer exists.

CU said this research will be applied to the upcoming Mars 2020 Rover Mission, which will be primarily focused on the search for past and present life on the red planet. Hynek said that some of the projected landing sites include former hydrothermal environments, like the Poás of today.

The Martian super volcano, Olympus Mons, will not likely be an area of study, because of its size. Hynek said it is the largest volcano in our solar system. Its base is roughly the size of Colorado and it's elevation reaches about two and a half times the height of Mt. Everest.