CEDAR FALLS – Fifteen students and two faculty from the University of Northern Iowa, along with a NASA scientist, spent spring break in the depths of Wind Cave in South Dakota as part of a simulated astrobiological field expedition.
The undergraduate students were learning what an astrobiologist may go through in terms of field sampling. Students used a variety of instruments, including Geiger Counters, an XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) and smartphone microscopes to study the cave. Besides learning how to use the instruments under field conditions, their results will provide the park with new information about the cave.
“We are hoping to gain new insights into the carbon and mineral flow through the cave as the water percolates from the surface,” said Josh Sebree, an astrochemistry professor at UNI. “All the students gained valuable hands-on experience looking for the flow of energy in the forms of heat, air and water.”
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Providing additional support was Morgan Cable, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Cable’s field of study is comparing extreme environments on Earth, such as lava tubes in Iceland, to other areas in the solar system where life may be found. Extreme environments, such as Wind Cave, help scientists better understand the limits of life.
“We are happy to host such a high-powered group of students and faculty,” said park superintendent Vidal Dávila. “We’re looking forward to learning more about the cave and its properties from their research here.”
The student’s trip was partially funded by a grant by the NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium. For more information and photos from the trip, visit the UNI Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Facebook page.