A deep-sea exploration mission of the Mid-Cayman Ridge could help NASA discover alien life forms.
The space agency is funding a mission to examine hydrothermal vents in the deepest reaches of the ocean, so it can determine if the same technology can be used to find out if there is life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa.
‘NASA is looking at vent fuel propulsion programmes that… push the limits of the capabilities of cutting edge technologies available,’ said Chris German, the chief scientist for deep submergence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
He was on board the R/V Cape Hatteras research vessel which stopped in Grand Cayman this week to refuel, get provisions, and make modifications to a robot submarine called Nereus that is capable of diving 36,089.24 feet, or about seven miles, to the deepest part of the ocean.
The Mid-Cayman Ridge is part of an underwater mountain range of which the three islands of the Cayman Islands are the visible summits.
Mr. German said that while NASA had experience in building ‘Landers’ to explore the surface of Mars, it realised that the exploration of the deep sea may provide answers for how it could access and explore Europa moon, which scientists suspect may have water under its icy surface and may sustain life.
A team of scientists and engineers on the mission to find and explore hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean floor set out from Port Canaveral in Florida on 11 October, funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
‘We have been off here, about 45 miles to the south, for the last 20 days, doing survey diving, preliminary diving with the sub,’ said Dale Murphy, the captain of research vessel R/V Cape Hatteras, which is owned by the National Science Foundation and chartered by Duke University of North Carolina’s Oceanographic Consortium.
While the mission may sound like looking for a needle in a haystack – the team initially mapped an area of 1,200 square miles – they have narrowed their field to one square mile in 20 days.
Mr. German said they had found three hydrothermal vents in the area. He said once their ship was re-provisioned and the submarine re-fitted to go from autonomous exploration mode to remote controlled gathering mode, they would return to the site and try to collect samples.
A film crew from National Geographic, which is making a programme on how Europa’s frozen ocean can be explored, is accompanying the team on this next leg of the mission and has hired the Sand Cay ship to shadow the R/V Cape Hatteras.
Mr. German described how the team had exhaustively explored the Mid-Cayman Ridge, which is 328 feet long and 66 feet wide. ‘There was not a parcel of water we had not been within five miles of,’ he said.
Excited about finding the vents, he said: ‘NASA sent us to prove there is hydrothermal activity. We have done that. There is warm, chemically enriched water coming from the deep sea floor,’ he said.
The next step is to collect samples of what is in the vents. Previous explorations of hydrothermal vents – like volcanic hot springs, but in the ocean – have led to the discovery of microbes and animals never seen before.
The chief scientist described giant tube worms that grow as long as two to three metres, and microbes that adapt to the chemical-enriched water in the vents.
During their stopover in Cayman, engineers refitted the unmanned Nereus, so it can be operated remotely by researchers on the ship rather than acting in a free-swimming, autonomous mode as it was programmed to do in the first half of the mission.
The submarine has gone down 14,764 feet, 3,280 feet deeper than any similar studies have been done before, Mr. German said.
The sub sends streaming live video to the boat thousands of feet above as it explores the vents.
Another scientist on board, Cindy Van Dover, the director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, said she was hoping to find in the vents ‘something never seen before’.
One of the purposes behind the exploratory mission is to find whether the hydrothermal vents in the Mid-Cayman Ridge are part of the Atlantic Basin or part of the Pacific Rim.
Mr. German also hopes to find evidence that might help answer some evolutionary questions.
‘Hydrothermal vents are a natural laboratory where scientists can watch chemical reactions that create organic molecules that can help them study the origins of life,’ he said.