Friday, 5 February 2016

IODP Expedition 357: The Real Science Party

Staff from the European Petrophysics Consortium based at the University of Leicester have been working as part of a team on the IODP Expedition357: Atlantis Massif Serpentinization and Life. As the latest phase, the Onshore Science Party (OSP) reaches its conclusion; it’s time to look back at the OSP experience at the Bremen Core Repository at the MARUM in Germany.

IODP Expedition 357 is a major research project that is investigating the link between alteration processes (serpentinization) and extreme life. It has attracted much media attention, including items on the BBC and Bremen radio, not least because of its links to the origins of life and by extension the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life.

The Bremen Core Repository containing over
150 km  of core!
EPC’s involvement in this project centres on providing petrophysical expertise as part of the ECORD (European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling) Science Operator in conjunction with the BGS and MARUM. The offshore phase of this mission-specific platform (MSP) expedition took place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between October and December 2015. Dr Sally Morgan, Petrophysics Staff Scientist on the expedition, analysed the ephemeral physical properties on the core whilst offshore as well as coordinating the downhole measurements programme. The core recovered from beneath the Atlantic seabed was then shipped to the Bremen Core Repository arriving there just before Christmas.  This is where the rest of the team came in, lead by Sally, and together forming the physical properties technical team working alongside four international scientists with interests in physical properties.

All of the scientists involved in Expedition 357, the Science Party, assemble for the first time at the OSP, only a few scientists were involved in the offshore phase. The science party includes 30 scientists from 12 countries and they are involved in sampling, measuring rock properties, and working on rock description and characterization. A set of standard measurements are acquired on every IODP expedition to ensure a consistent data contribution to the legacy databases. Broadly speaking these measurements span the disciplines and facilitate characterization of the rocks recovered, including physical properties and high-resolution digital imaging of the cores (the responsibility of Leicester's EPC team). During the OSP reports are written on the expedition data (find them at the bottom of the page linked here), and scientists discuss their personal research projects potentially forging collaborations.

So the Onshore Science Party is serious business, but is it also a party? Well yes and no. These teams worked around the clock (almost literally!) to develop a comprehensive record of the recovered rock in only 17 days! Yet, for many, the OSP is their first contact time with the recovered rocks, generating an almost tangible atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as each core is split and the story revealed. It is a fantastically encouraging environment for budding and early-career scientists: full of potential connections that may lead to future collaborations and opportunities. One such example of this interdisciplinary collaboration developed in the physical properties lab. One of the four science party members was microbiologist  Dr MattSchrenk. Matt’s research focuses on microbial life in extreme environments, and he had requested to be part of the OSP physical properties team so that he could learn about the moisture and density measurements acquired to investigate porosity.  Matt is interested in understanding how porosity might control the location of life within these rocks. The hope is that one day this research arising from Expedition 357 might aid in the search for extra-terrestrial life. A perhaps unexpected, and undeniably interesting connection.

The Expedition 357 OSP has been hard work for everyone involved so far and as the scientists and ESO staff begin to depart to their various corners of the globe, the lingering buzz of anticipation reminds everyone that the OSP is only really the start of the science. 

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