Last month, a team of researchers from UNSW, students and teachers from Marble Bar Primary School, scientists from NASA, and local Nyamal Knowledge Holders took part in an exciting field trip in the Pilbara, to learn about remarkable fossils and ancient extraterrestrial life.

Back in 2017, scientists found evidence that the rock fossils in the Pilbara are the oldest. Since then, scientists from around the world have been studying the rocks, located in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia, to better understand how to search for life on Mars.

“In an area known as the North Pole Dome, there are fossil stromatolites that are 3.48 billion years old and these represent the oldest convincing evidence of life on Earth,” says Clare Fletcher, a UNSW Science PhD candidate who helped coordinate the trip. “In the Pilbara, you can see these ancient fossils in their environmental context, and better understand what early Earth was like.”

Professor Martin Van Kranendonk and UNSW Science PhD candidate Luke Steller also led the trip, an opportunity to explore active Two-Way learning of the famous fossils with ten Nyamal Elders.

“Indigenous Australians have been here, learning about and understanding the land, how to best manage it, and how to live here sustainably for tens of thousands of years. Because of this, there’s a lot of knowledge about geology, ecology and hydrology that can provide a more holistic view of our world,” says Fletcher.

Fossils over 2.5 billion years old

Stromatolites are fossilised layers of microbial build-up in rocks that have formed in shallow water.

Dome-like structures characterised by layers of light and dark sediment, stromatolites were common in what is known as Precambrian time (more than 542 million years ago). The area of Meentheena has stromatolite fossils that are around 2.72 billion years old - a time when life on Earth started to produce the free atmospheric oxygen that allowed more complex life to evolve.

When the stromatolites were alive, they would have developed in a lake environment. Mars has evidence of past rivers, lakes, and oceans, though it’s unclear if there was ever much free oxygen in its atmosphere.

The clues to the geological past preserved at Meentheena are similar to those that we may want to explore for on the Red Planet, when looking for evidence of life.

Inspiring the next generation of scientists

The trip involved a jam-packed schedule of activities, from classroom lessons, to rocket launching challenges and excursions to the fossil-sites.

To start, Fletcher and Steller gave lessons to the students at Marble Bar Primary School, to help them understand why NASA is coming to visit fossils in Meentheena and how information from their trip can guide missions to Mars.

Students learnt how rovers are landed on the surface of Mars and why this is so hard to do. To demonstrate this difficult procedure, the team organised an ‘Egg Drop challenge’, where students had to create a protective landing device for an egg within a budget and with limited materials.

“Luke and Clare provided engaging, interesting and relevant science learning activities for all the students at Marble Bar Primary School."

- Natalie Edgecombe, Teacher at Marble Bar Primary School.

The day trip to Meentheena meant hands-on fossil hunting. Walking to the fossil outcrops up the dry parts of the river bed gave everyone the chance to talk about all the different rocks in the river, what they were, where they came from, and what we can learn from them.

“My highlight was definitely seeing the students get really engaged with both chatting with the scientists and looking at the fossils at Meentheena,” says Fletcher. “When I go out to study these rocks or any rocks really, that’s what I do too - chat with various experts and understand the history of an area through its rocks - so seeing the students do the same is like seeing the next generation of scientists at work.”


A chance to learn from each other

“When spending time out at the fossils it was incredible listening to the students and community members share their own intimate knowledge of the landscape, built over a lifetime of living in the area and watching it change over seasons and years,” says Steller.

The Nyamal Elders spoke a lot about caring for Country and protecting Country, as well as the need to understand these unique sites and why it’s important to care for these places.

The NASA scientists who also joined the trip explained how the work in the Pilbara helps guide Mars missions. Being able to see ancient fossils in their environmental context and identify a fossil versus other geological features that are not formed by biology is really important for ongoing Mars missions.

The latest trip to the Pilbara will help inform future trips to study the unique fossil formations at Meentheena, as part of the award-winning Two-Way science program at the school.

“The students, staff and community can’t wait to see how our visit to Meentheena can continue to be expanded across the fields of Two-Way Scientific endeavor with our Nyamal Knowledge Holders and other world leading Scientists,” says Shane Wilson, principal of Marble Bar Community School.

“I can’t wait to go back and keep developing those connections with the students and community,” says Steller. “It’s an awesome town with an incredible community and a real privilege to be able to share their excitement for their Country with them!”