Subsurface Controls on Habitability of Hydrothermal Waters

Monday, 15 December 2014
Kirsten E Fristad1, Sanjoy M Som2 and Tori M Hoehler1, (1)NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States, (2)Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Seattle, WA, United States
Liquid water alone does not make an environment habitable. Environmental settings dominated by water-rock reactions such as in hydrothermal vents and springs are natural targets for astrobiological investigation of waterworlds because the rich geochemical diversity at these locales provides abundant energy in solvent to support microbial life. Hydrogen oxidizers are of particular interest because H2-based metabolisms are widespread and deeply rooted throughout the phylogenetic tree of life, implying they may have emerged extremely early in the evolution, and possibly even the origin, of life on Earth and potentially any other rocky bodies bearing liquid water. Dihydrogen (H2) can be lithogenically produced by the hydrolytic oxidation of the ferrous iron component in Fe-bearing minerals as well as by radiolytic cleavage of water by α, β, or γ radiation produced during the decay of radioactive isotopes. Lithogenic H2 production mechanisms operate across a range of rock types, but the concentration of dissolved H2 available to life is controlled by a number of subsurface factors such as surface geometry, water to rock ratio, production rate, and fluid flux. These factors are often controlled by the larger geologic and structural context of a particular site. We present results of an ongoing project that surveys H2 concentrations from terrestrial hydrothermal waters in diverse chemical and physical settings. Aqueous H2 concentrations and potential subsurface controls are presented for sites across the western U.S. including Yellowstone National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Iceland. In coordination with field data, we also investigate the habitability of various sites numerically by coupling a geochemical model of water-rock interaction with that of single-cell methanogenesis and compute a habitability index for the given environment. In particular, we investigate the control that temperature, rock composition, water composition, and water to rock ratio (dilution) has on biological potential.