Studying Space From Antarctica

The C-130 lumbered out of the Antarctic sky into the American base at McMurdo with the rarest of cargo on board: padlocked boxes containing possible evidence of extraterrestrial life.

They're meteorites that scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston are waiting to take a look at, reports CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen.

"We find these things that are pretty weird and we haven't seen before," says researcher John Schutt.

This otherworldly continent, with its snow-white plateaus, is the ideal place to search for darkly scorched space rocks that may have come from Mars or the Moon. Field crews, funded by the National Science Foundation, have been at it for nearly a quarter of a century.

The samples, nearly 200 recovered this season alone, are carefully packaged to rule out contamination questions.

"You usually find a couple of rocks that don't look like any meteorite you've seen before," researcher Scott Sanford says. "It may just be a strange piece of terrestrial junk rock. But it also may be the most interesting meteorite of the year."

In Antarctica's Dry Valley lakes, divers who look like they're suiting up for a space mission, are also probing for clues to Martian life. Sometimes their mission can get quite perilous.

For instance, a diver last month at the end of his safety rope, under the 15-foot-thick ice suddenly found all his air escaping. His regulator had frozen open. After a frantic 45 seconds, he emerged safely—and with lake-bottom samples.

Project leader Peter Doran says the Antarctic lakes resemble the Mars of billions of years ago. Primitive life forms in the sediment here may offer a guide to life there.

"We expect lakes like this existed," Doran says. "So if we go to Mars and look for samples and evidence of past life, what are we looking for? Where do we look for it? I'm actually convinced it will be hard not to find evidence of past life on Mars."

The search for clues to Martian life is not taking place solely beneath the ice of the Dry Valley lakes. Biologists are also looking inside the snow at the world's highest, driest, coldest desert, the South Pole.

Biologist Ed Carpenter didn't have high expectations when he first came here. "Initially, I was interested in finding a place on Earth, at least in Antarctica, where there wasn't any life," he says.

Instead, with the aid of sophisticated microscopes, Carpenter found thousands of minute organisms, algae, and bacteria. They're so small, he is still trying to confirm they're alive, although now he suspects that they are.

That raises intriguing questions: Were they carried in by the wind or did they originate in this harsh environment?

It also suggests intriguing possibilities for extraterrestrial life. "There's a very, very good chance that life does occur extraterrestrially," Carpenter now says. "Organisms always have a tendency to adapt to harsh environmens. Perhaps an organism could make it in a place like Mars—in a polar ice cap."

It's the last place you would expect to find a serious search for signs of E.T.—the cold, barren, bottom of our world. But if life forms can make it here, maybe it is proof, they made it way out there.