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To the Limit

Explore Life Science

Only approximately four percent of the land mass on Earth is habitable for us humans. Scientists, however, frequently push forward into the most extreme corners of the planet and even into space. Four projects illustrate how it is possible to work in such places – and endure.

Image: © Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Stefan Christmann CC-BY 4.0

Alone in Eternal Ice

For the past ten years, the stakes of Neumayer Station III have been protruding from the ice at Atka Bay. Here, on the edge of Antarctica, darkness, temperatures as low as minus 47 degrees Celsius and gale-force winds determine everyday life for the nine researchers of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany, who reside at Neumayer III. They are dedicated, among other pursuits, to the study of atmospheric chemistry, geophysics and meteorology. While Antarctica may offer the perfect conditions for their research, in addition to the weather, loneliness poses a real danger. “Isolation, plus the eight weeks of continuous darkness of the polar winter, paired with ­everyday monotony, place an enormous amount of stress on the psyche”, says Tim Heitland. As station head, the medical doctor himself spent 14 months at Neumayer III. Heitland conducted a study on the impact of the exceptional psychological and physical stress of isolation, which is meant to provide important insights into space medicine.
Image: © alamy

The Last Laboratory of its Kind

In the shallow waters off the coast of Florida, the Aquarius Reef Base has been in existence since 1986. After numerous underwater habitats had been released into the ocean during the second half of the last century, the Aquarius base is now the last remaining active research laboratory. “The running maintenance and operating costs are tremendous; for example, two years ago, the life-sustaining buoy of the platform was damaged. Repairs were incredibly complex”, explains marine biologist Heather Bracken-Grissom of Florida ­International University which operates the laboratory. The scientific knowledge gained from below the surface, however, makes the effort worthwhile: “We are in the process of collecting samples of sea sand for the purpose of taking inventory of the living organisms contained therein. Aquarius is ideally suited to such missions.” The 37 square meters provide enough space for up to six people. During the missions, most of which last for ten days, the scientists remain permanently inside the base. “You literally live underwater”, says Bracken-Grissom, and she asks: “What could be cooler?”
Image: © Getty Images

Microbes in Space

Is there life on other planets? With this question in mind, modern scientists focus their efforts on our neighboring planet, Mars. While the Mars Rover Curiosity tours the surface of Mars searching for signs of life, a team of researchers from the BIOMEX project have embarked on a detour: this project studies microbes in space. In 2014, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) had seeded bacteria, algae, lichen and fungi onto an external platform of the Inter­national Space Station (ISS). The conclusion after 533 days: “Some of the organisms have displayed remarkable resistance to cosmic radiation and have actually returned from space as ‘survivors’.” Dr. Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera of the DLR® Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof is impressed. “Among other organisms, we have studied Archaea – single-celled organisms that have existed on Earth in salty ocean waters for more than three and a half billion years.” Such unicellular organisms could therefore be feasible candidates whose existence on Mars might be possible. “This does not mean, however, that life really does exist on Mars”, cautions de Vera. “But the search for life is now, more than ever, the strongest driving force for the next generation of space missions to Mars.
Image: ​© Getty Images

Lofty Heights

High above the clouds, in the Bernese Alps, it is not only the view that is breathtaking – so is the research. Just recently, “Platform Chemistry” honored the high alpine research station “Jungfraujoch® ” with the “Chemical Landmark 2019” award for its role as a pioneering and historic research station. Exactly what is the subject of study at an altitude of 3,450 meters above sea level? “The station is predestined for atmospheric studies”, explains station director Professor Markus Leuenberger. Current projects calculate the percentage of human contribution to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the terrestrial biosphere and the oceans – knowledge crucial to our survival. However, the exposed location itself poses an immediate risk to the researchers. The station is subject to extreme weather conditions year-round. Leuenberger: “With a mean annual temperature of minus 7.2 degrees Celsius, snowfall is a possibility at any time during the year. Add to this the strong gusts of wind well above 200 kilometers per hour and, of course, the low air pressure that quickly leads to shortness of breath. Despite all this, the influx of researchers is considerable. “We are talking about up to 1,000 overnight stays per year”, says Leuenberger. Up here at the Jungfraujoch, researchers have found their perfect extreme.