Dr. Dale Andersen

SETI Institute Principal Investigator

The exploration of the Antarctic continent readily conjures up images of desolation. But for humans to survive there, they must be members of carefully planned, integrated teams. As the American leader of a joint US/Soviet expedition to Antarctica, biologist Dale Andersen spent six months with a multinational, multicultural crew in this remote, hostile environment, carrying out research relevant to the search for life on Mars. “In addition to the rigors of the local environment,” says Andersen, “we had to address the challenges of our differing cultures and languages.” 


Andersen's research takes him to such diverse environments as Chile’s Atacama Desert, the ancient permafrost of Siberia, the world's northernmost lakes and springs in the Canadian high Arctic, and the depths of the polar oceans. “My work in the polar regions has involved a lot of underwater time in remote areas,” says Andersen, “and over the years I have made close to a thousand dives beneath thick ice of lakes and oceans.” Andersen’s team has learned that beneath the thick ice-cover of the lakes reside robust microbial communities, similar in many ways to life on Earth billions of years ago. “To our surprise,” he recounts, “we found microbial communities living beneath ice more than twenty feet thick. Initially, we did not think enough light would penetrate the ice cover to support photosynthetic life forms."


The Mars Exploration Rovers show compelling evidence that water once flowed freely on Mars. As the temperature on Mars cooled, ice-covered lakes may have formed, similar to the lakes Andersen studies in Antarctica and the High Arctic. And if life existed on early Mars, it may have continued to live even as the Martian lakes froze over. By investigating the ice-covered lakes of Antarctica, Andersen hopes to learn more about the history of water--and perhaps life--on Mars.




nikon D3Nikon recently donated Nikon camera equipment, including their flagship camera body the new Nikon D3 and three of their best lenses! This will help Dale enormously while conducting research in the field sites he visits. Recording and documenting his work is important both scientifically and for sharing the excitement with others. Dale is now hoping for the funds or a gift-in-kind so he can get this wonderful camera into an underwater housing and capture the types of shots that no one else is able to get.

A note from Dale

Sometimes people envision science as a dreary process of working with complex mathematical equations and solving abstract problems. In fact, it’s a fascinating process of exploration and discovery,  whether it be working on a penetrating set of equations that depict  the formation of a neutron star or witnessing the unfolding of  a small flower in the dry expanse of the Atacama desert.  

Mathematical models have their own abstract beauty. But  the scientific process of exploration and discovery can also reveal great beauty in a profoundly visual way.  The world around us is filled with beauty from pole to pole.  My work  takes me to regions that are typically not visited by the average  person, and I strive to take the time to appreciate and record their beauty as I conduct my studies.

For me, part of the enjoyment of exploration is being able to share the natural wonders I encounter.  The visual world of photography plays a very  important role in my work.  It allows me to capture the fleeting  glimpse of an animal, depict a landscape as it was at that instant, or  catch the expressions and emotions  of colleagues at work during difficult moments as well as the less intense relaxed periods. 

It’s important to use the right tools - ones that are reliable even  under the most grueling circumstances. I am proud to say that Nikon,  Inc., has provided me with its flagship camera, the D3, to enable my  ongoing efforts of scientific field photography. This camera is  capable of standing up to the punishment that it will be subject to  whether it be in cold, dusty conditions or in climates with wet snow.

I also plan to take this camera underwater and below the ice in polar  regions. Using the camera this way will require a protective housing that provides access to all the controls of the camera, an appropriate high-quality lens  port that accommodates a variety of lenses, and two high-powered flash  units coupled to the camera to illuminate the scene and highlight the details and variations in colors and textures.

The Carl Sagan Center is seeking sponsorship for this highly specialized equipment.