HELENA - Volcanic lakes as extreme habitats for the Astrobiological exploration
How can we advance in astrobiological research and space mission preparation if access to space remains restricted ? All space agencies now recognize the significance of studying terrestrial analogous sites (PFAs - Planetary Field Analogues).
HELENA is a project coordinated by Prof. Barbara Cavalazzi (University of Bologna) and funded by the Italian Space Agency (ASI), to characterize, in an astrobiological perspective, Lake Bagno dell’Acqua on Pantelleria island (Eolie archipelago, Sicily),which is a volcanic and hydrothermal lake located inside the caldera. It is distinguished by polyextreme conditions such as an arid climate, intense seasonal evaporation, high thermal water temperatures, pH ranging from slightly acidic to strongly alkaline, high salinity as a result of evaporation, and presence of metals and other chemical elements as a result of water’s interaction with volcanic products (rocks, gases, thermal fluids). An environmental framework that will support a complex and multifaceted ecosystem of astrobiological interest (which will be investigated by geobiologists, geologists, microscopists, microbiologists, and ecologists). Such research will broaden our understanding of diversity as well as the limits to the growth and survival of life as we know it.
The Viterbo Unit, which I coordinate, will be involved in the characterization of the microbial diversity and functionality through the isolation and identification of cultivable microorganisms, as well as through qPCR, metabarcoding, and metagenomic approaches.