James Cameron II: Extreme Life

Categories: Interview Missions

Extreme Life
Interview with James Cameron, Part II

As an artist and film-maker, James Cameron is credited on major Hollywood productions in virtually all roles: writer, director, producer, editor, visual effects, actor, art director, and even crew. His recent credits have made him the most demanded Hollywood talent, with a particular personal interest in space, NASA, and portraying both the frontiers of research and ground-breaking science fiction. Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

In this multi-part interview, Astrobiology Magazine’s Chief Editor and Executive Producer, Helen Matsos, sat down with James Cameron –extreme explorer, writer, director, and Oscar-winning film-maker–to discuss his project slate. During their discussions, Cameron shared how he became interested in extreme environments, including how he came to operate his own fleet of world-class, deep-sea submersibles. The director also outlined how the frontiers of astrobiology make for great story-telling.


Helen Matsos (HM): You combine filmmaking, new technology development, and exploration in your next movie, "X: Extreme Life." Is this an expedition to hydrothermal vents on the seafloor to study extreme forms of life, or what we call "extremophiles" in the field of astrobiology?

James Cameron (JC): Oh yes, that’s were the title comes from.

HM: How did you get interested in this topic?

JC: Anything that interests space scientists interests me. I don’t profess to be a scientist, but I certainly have the same curiosity that they have, and I love ocean exploration.

This film is such a natural for me because it combines the three things that I love most – ocean exploration, space exploration, and filmmaking. I don’t get any happier than when I’m working on this type of film. The studios would love for me to make another big action sci-fi film so we could make a lot of money, but frankly this is a much more compelling thing to be doing.

HM: Is the goal of your film to show that these extreme environments can act as models for speculating where else we might find life in the solar system?

JC: That’s exactly it. When the hydrothermal vent animal communities were discovered in the late seventies, it just blew the lid off marine biology, and biology in general. It showed a completely different basis for life than anything that had been known previously. In all other known environments on Earth, you have a photosynthesis-based ecosystem where the plants are the primary producers, using the energy of the Sun to feed everything else on the planet.

So then they find these chemosynthesis-based life forms at the bottom of the ocean, feeding off minerals that are coming up from below and feeding off thermal energy. It took them a while to figure out what they were seeing. "How is this working? Oh, they’re living off the bacteria." Not only are they feeding on the bacteria, but they are living symbiotically with the bacteria inside their bodies. These microorganisms are actually transport structures for bacterial colonies.

They were amazed! They had never seen anything like it. It didn’t take long before the connection was made: "Well, wait a minute, if you can have life without sunlight — if all you need is thermal energy and liquid water and some sort of chemistry — then don’t we need to redefine what we think of as the life zone surrounding a star? Do you even need the star in the first place? Can you have some large body, like a Jupiter-size mass, with icy moons orbiting around it, where the energy comes from simple tidal pumping, essentially from friction?" These were all new ideas.

Jupiter’s moon Europa is covered with ice. There’s another moon in a nearby orbit called Io, and that moon is highly volcanic because it is being pumped by the tidal forces of the parent planet. So wouldn’t you have that same thing on Europa? If so, wouldn’t there be an interface where there might be liquid water deep down? So now you’ve got an alien hydrosphere. You’ve got all the same ingredients that you have at the bottom at the ocean at the mid-Atlantic ridges, and you may have the key ingredients for extraterrestrial life!

Europa, false color.
Jupiter’s moon Europa.Credit: NASA

HM: Have you invited astrobiologists to join you on the expedition as possible research collaborators?

JC: Astrobiologists don’t typically get funding to go looking at hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. When we knew that we were going to be doing that, I called up people I knew at NASA centers, and their initial response was "Hey, we’d love to be a part of this. What can we do?"

Astrobiologists are looking at all the extreme environments on the Earth so that they can explore the limits of life. "How long can organisms persist when they are separated from sources of food or sources of heat? In what extremes of temperatures and salinity and pH and what different kinds of chemistries can they exist in?"

When you find bacteria acting as the primary producers of an ecosystem, and they are living on hydrogen sulfide – which is considered toxic to most life forms – you’ve got an extremophile that could be very interesting to an astrobiologist. They may find something someday on Europa, or on some other body that’s explored in the future, that looks just like that.

Mars Landscape
Dry ice and frost on Mars. Credit:Viking/JPL

The more astrobiologists can learn about the extreme versions of life on Earth, the more they can learn about the boundaries of where they might or might not expect to find life. You can’t search all of space, you’ve got to target your search a little bit, you’ve got to know where to look. Are you going to look under the ice of the polar caps on Mars? Are you going to try to drill down on Mars to find subterranean brine aquifers? And when you do, what are you going to find there?

It’s funny how I explain things in the form of questions. But you know, it’s really all about questions, it’s all about curiosity.

HM: Does your expedition interest scientists from other disciplines?

JC: Geologists are interested. "How do we distinguish between structures that require life, and structures that just may be pure mineral formations? How do we do our sampling?"

Engineers are interested as well. They may be asked at some point to develop a vehicle that can fly to Europa, land, melt down through the ice, pop out into an extraterrestrial hydrosphere, and start exploring. They’ve got to know, "how do you navigate when you don’t have GPS? How do you do your imaging, how do you do your sampling?"

Europa cryobot
This artist rendering shows a proposed ice-penetrating cryobot and a submersible hydrobot that could be used to explore the ice-covered ocean on Jupiter’s large satellite, Europa.
Credit: NASA

The best Earth analog for Europa is to go to the hydrothermal vents, because you’re dealing with the same pressure regime. The vent environment in a Europan ocean might be 50 miles down, but the gravity of Europa in only a tenth of what it is on Earth. Since pressure is a function of gravity, even though it’s 10 times deeper than the oceans on Earth, it’s one-tenth the gravity, so the pressures are the same as what we deal with at the Mid-Atlantic ridge. So you’re looking at the same kinds of pressure vessels, the same kinds of fluid-compensated systems.

The sorts of things that we use in our deep ocean technology are going to have to be considered by the engineering teams when they design their vehicles. How do you fly a vehicle around a hydrothermal vent site, where you have these rapid convection flows of super-heated water and swirling mineral clouds that inhibit visibility? Are you going to do your imaging with visible light? Are you going to image in other spectra so that you maybe can see biology using infrared or ultraviolet? You’ve got to start thinking about different spectra and looking for bioluminescence.

The Titanic wreck
Credit: Lightstorm

There are all kinds of things that need to be known before you can even design such a vehicle. And practical experience is critical! So I would propose, and have proposed, to take some astrobiologists and space technologists on submersible dives to the hydrothermal vents sites. Let them participate in the operation of remotely operated vehicles, and see how a vehicle might be maneuvered for sampling purposes. Let them start thinking about things like "how do you physically configure the vehicle? What are its size, weight, and energy requirements? How’s it going to communicate? How’s it going to navigate?"

If it’s operating under the ice on Europa, it’s not going to be operated in real-time by a human back here on Earth. It’s going to have to have a high degree of onboard smarts. You’re talking about an autonomous vehicle that’s being asked to perform a very complex function. It has to have image analysis and object-recognition capabilities. It has to be able to look at something and say, "That’s a living thing!" Or look at something else and say, "That’s hot, and if I go there I might fry myself." It’s going to have to perform all those functions on its own, and then go to some kind of report point where it can up-link its data. Because you can’t just transmit data through water, it doesn’t work.

When we’re working on the ocean bottom in a submersible, we’re communicating with the ship overhead acoustically, and it’s very, very difficult. We were down diving the Titanic on September 11th, and we were probably the last people in the Western Hemisphere to find out what had happened. We came back to the ship twelve hours later, and they hadn’t been able to tell us because we couldn’t understand what they were saying over the underwater acoustic com system. Radio frequencies don’t propagate through water.

So if you’re going to try to up-link your data from the bottom of an alien ocean, you’ve got to have a plan. Optical fiber is the obvious way to go, but then how do you manage the optical fiber? How do you keep it stable, when you might have currents, when you might have ice that’s moving relative to the bottom?

"There’re a billion questions and about eight answers so far. "

There’re a billion questions and about eight answers so far. The more that you can put people asking these questions in a place where they can study an Earth analog situation, the more sense that makes. So far, the NASA folks that I’ve talked to and tried to get involved in this have gotten that so quickly and intuitively that they’ve jumped in. They are scrambling to organize their side of it so they can be effective, but we haven’t given them a lot of time to react. Film financing always flies together at the last minute, and I didn’t want to waste their time telling them two years ahead of time we were going to do something if we couldn’t do it.

Join us for Part III of the Cameron interview: Space, the Reality Show