Aliens of the Deep

kevin_hand
Kevin Hand, a Stanford graduate student, is working with Christopher Chyba on one of several projects relevant to Europa.
Image Credit: SETI Institute

Stanford graduate student Kevin Hand explores the potential for life on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, for his doctoral work with geological and environmental sciences Associate Professor Christopher Chyba. Like most astrobiologists and planetary scientists, Hand must do his research from afar. He can’t ride a rocket 365 million miles to Europa, drill into the ice-capped ocean and scuba dive to find signs of life.

Recently, however, film director and exploration enthusiast James Cameron (Titanic, Aliens) gave Hand a chance to search for "alien" life a bit closer to home–a mere 2 miles below the ocean surface– as part of Cameron’s IMAX documentary, Aliens of the Deep, which opens Jan. 28.

The communities studied by Hand and presented in the film are as close to alien as anything on Earth. "We can then begin to understand the task ahead of us as we search for life beyond Earth," Hand says.

Funded and distributed by Disney, the film takes audiences to the ocean floor for a glimpse at the bizarre creatures living near hydrothermal vents gushing underwater hot springs powered by the volcanic activity underlying mid-ocean ridges.

Working with a small crew of astrobiologists, marine biologists, planetary scientists and geophysicists from NASA and other institutions, Hand made eight trips in a submersible rover to six vent sites. Logging dives in both the Pacific and the Atlantic to spots with names like "Lost City" and "Snake Pit," he spent up to 15 hours at a time in the tiny vessel, slowly descending toward the ocean floor to capture stunning images of 6-foot tubeworms, blind white crabs and incredible masses of white shrimp that can "see" heat.

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"Any organic molecule on the surface of Europa is in a highly oxidizing environment, where the oxygen’s getting produced by the radiation reacting with the ice." -Christopher Chyba
Image Credit: NASA

But what do these curious creatures have to do with the search for extraterrestrial life? In short, the harsh conditions near hydrothermal vents mirror those found on other planets and moons, so life that exists at vents may tell us what to look for in space.

"This perhaps reflects the most important lesson learned from the discovery of the vents back in the late 1970s," explains Hand. The surprising existence of life "caused the biological community to scratch its head and rethink things."

Scientists had assumed that nothing could live in the extreme environment, where scorching 345 degree Celsius temperatures, strange water chemistry and zero sunlight cannot support a typical ocean food web.

Consider that a cloudy black flare of iron, copper, zinc and hydrogen sulfide sustains the ecosystem. It’s an upside-down power plant where microbes eat scalding exhaust.

Will a similar or equally extraordinary system be discovered under the Europan ocean or in the Martian fossil record? If so, it will probably resemble simple microbial life on Earth and nothing more, Hand says. But these aliens of the deep prove it’s always worth checking.

James Cameron
Artist and film-maker, James Cameron told Astrobiology Magazine: "If ( aliens ) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies."
Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

A National Geographic companion book and a guide for educators wishing to incorporate the material into their curricula are available to accompany the spectacular film footage. Says Hand: "The target audience is third graders, though I think [James Cameron] and his team have done a nice job of making it great for all ages."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Kenneth M. Dixon is a science writing intern for the Stanford News Service.

Related Web Pages

Europa: A Continuing Story of Discovery (Galileo Project)
James Cameron’s Mars Reference Design
James Cameron I: The Titanic Explorer
James Cameron II: Extreme Life
James Cameron III: Space, the Reality Show
James Cameron IV: The ET Challenge
Io: A Continuing Story of Discovery (Galileo Project)
Impact Gardening Rates on Europa: Comparison with Sputtering
Studying Europa from the Outside In
Europa Diary (Astrobiology Magazine)