Lead Investigator: Dawn Cardace, Department of Geosciences, University of Rhode Island
Co-Investigators: Tori Hoehler, Exobiology Branch, NASA Ames Research Center; Tom McCollom, LASP, University of Colorado at Boulder; Matthew Schrenk, Department of Geological Sciences, Michigan State University
Initial funding source: NASA Astrobiology Institute’s (NAI) 2010 Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF), $146,349.
Subsequent funding source: Sloan Foundation, Deep Carbon Observatory, Deep Life I, PI Schrenk with co-advocate I. Daniel
Serpentinization – a class of water-rock reactions with potential to generate large amounts of hydrogen and possibly hydrocarbons and organics – has potential to support subsurface communities over geologically-long time scales, and is a possible source for the methane “plumes” that have recently been observed on Mars. Research on serpentinizing systems has thus far focused on surface expressions of a subsurface process (as venting fluids that mix with the atmosphere or ocean into which they emerge). Additionally, the land-based and submarine sites that have received the most intensive study are relative “hot spots” – end members on the spectrum of fluid chemistries resulting from serpentizination. While observations at these sites are tantalizing, in an astrobiological sense, it is not clear how they inform our understanding of long-term subsurface habitability. At CROMO, we have established a subsurface “observatory” by drilling 8 wells into a shallowly buried, actively serpentinizing body, characterizing the cores, and outfitting the boreholes for a program of long-term observation and experimentation. We consider this subsurface observatory in serpentinizing terrane to be unique, and envision that the established observatory would ultimately become a resource for the broader astrobiology community, creating a central site and test bed in which to integrate a range of approaches.