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From the submarine, astronaut Chris Hadfield is collecting data such as photos, videos, and rock samples for the researchers during the project's two-week field season, which ends this Friday. ((Pavilion Lake Research Project) )

Canadian and U.S. astronauts are exploring the depths of a unique B.C. lake alongside scientists, exchanging skills they hope will help them do science together in deep space.

This week, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield and some NASA astronauts have been flying tiny, one-person submarines among unusual rock formations called microbialites deep beneath the surface of Pavilion Lake near Lillooet, B.C.

The carbonate formations are similar to ancient fossils formed hundreds of millions of years ago and hypothesized to have been created by bacteria. Researchers have been fascinated by the microbialites at Pavilion Lake because they were formed in the last 10,000 years in a freshwater lake rich with life such as fish, making them a rare find, said Allyson Brady, acting principal investigator for the project.

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Before 2008, all exploration of the six-kilometre long, 65-metre deep lake was done by scuba divers, but they couldn't cover a lot of distance. Nor could they reach the microbialites in the deepest parts of the lake, Brady said. ((Pavilion Lake Research Project) )

From the submarine, the astronauts are collecting data such as photos, videos, and rock samples for the researchers during the project's two-week field season, which ends this Friday.

"We are coming to assist with that, but really to take it to the next step, which is [figuring out] how we … are going to explore asteroids, getting into a pressurized vehicle to go carefully fly around a unique geological sample and retrieve samples from it … how you're going to work with an integrated technological team," Hadfield said Tuesday on the phone from Pavilion Lake.

"So when the time comes for the next generation to go beyond Earth orbit, we can use the lessons we learned here … for deeper space exploration."

This is the first year Hadfield has been involved in the project, which launched in its current form in 2004. The Canadian Space Agency started taking part about two or three years ago, when researchers began using manned submarines called Deepworkers made by Vancouver-based Nuytko Research.

Beyond divers' reach

Before that, all underwater exploration of the six-kilometre long, 65-metre deep lake was done by scuba divers, but they couldn't cover a lot of distance. Nor could they reach the microbialites in the deepest parts of the lake, Brady said.

The Deepworkers can travel much faster, deeper and stay underwater longer than a diver can.

Microbialites of Pavilion Lake

Microbialites are carbonate rock structures that are believed to have been formed with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria.

While they were common 2.5 billion to 540 million years ago, they are rarely found today in freshwater lakes.

Microbialites were discovered in Pavilion Lake in the 1990s, and there is evidence that they grew during the last 10,000 or so.

Researchers hope to learn more about the conditions that allow them to form and look for evidence that microorganisms are involved.

"Here we're not limited to just whatever we find that's fossilized," said Allyson Brady, principal investigator for the project. "We can sample the live bacteria, we can sample the water, we can look at what the light variation is in the lake, we can look at seasonal temperature differences."

Hadfield said that data will help scientists deduce the conditions that allowed similar microbialites to form in the past.

Scientists also believe that if life is found beyond Earth, it will likely be microbial life, and therefore the study of formations like microbialites may help them identify signs of life elsewhere in the universe. In fact, a Martian meteorite discovered in Antarctica in 1984 was recently confirmed to contain crystals that look similar to some created by bacteria on Earth.

Hadfield said the submarines resemble a bubble with a robot arm in front.

"It's maybe like a smartcar sized vehicle with one person in middle, and you drive [with] your feet," Hadfield said. That leaves the pilot's hands free to operate sensing equipment, keep notes and take pictures.

Researchers are "very keen" about training astronauts as field scientists, because it's likely the researchers would have to rely on  astronauts to bring back samples for them during space exploration.

"A lot of them are engineers or they're fighter test pilots," Brady said. "If they were sent to Mars and told 'you get to collect one sample,' how would you make that decision about which one sample?"

At Pavilion Lake, the astronauts have a chance to sit in on meetings where scientists plan the field work for the next day based on the results from the day before in a real life, unpredictable environment, Brady said. Meanwhile, the researchers benefit from the astronauts' "very different" perspective.

"They have a lot of ideas and inputs about how to be more effective with, say, our use of personnel or our use of the Deepworkers, or how to deal with our processing of data."

Meanwhile, the astronauts' goal is to develop procedures for planning and executing similar missions in space.

While they have used other extreme environments to train for space missions, such as a special giant pool in Houston, a site on Devon Island that resembles meteor craters on the moon, and the top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea, Hadfield said Pavilion Lake is unique because it's not just a simulator for astronauts.

"Not only are we developing all of the techniques that we need as astronauts, but we're working with a real scientific team that's gathering groundbreaking, fundamental research data," he said. "It adds a whole layer of realism to the simulation."