WASHINGTON (Circa) - The search for life in the solar system may begin in the Earth's oceans.
NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other academic organizations are working together on a program called SUBSEA, or Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog. The research project, founded in 2017, explores underwater volcanoes off the coast of Hawaii from an exploration vessel, the Nautilus.
Scientists gather data by remotely piloting vehicles at up to 4,000 meters below sea level. The mission focuses on the chemical interaction between water and rock, where microbial life flourishes.
Because the harsh conditions in the sea likely resemble those found on icy moons and ocean planets, SUBSEA researchers hope that studying this environment on Earth will hold the key to understanding habitability elsewhere in our solar system.
Exploring underwater volcanoes is 1 way NASA is preparing for future space missions! The @SUBSEA_research team, which includes @Astromaterials staff, is exploring Lo’ihi seamount in Hawaii, an analog to hydrothermal systems on other ocean worlds. More: https://t.co/YkoYoioMIM pic.twitter.com/CcoTvO4B62— NASA Astromaterials (@Astromaterials) August 31, 2018
Scientists are already confident that moons of planets in the solar system are a good place to look for potential life. NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn in 2017 registered a plume of water bubbling from below the planet’s moon, Enceladus. From this, scientists were able to deduce the temperature, pressure, and conditions below. The evidence pointed to hydrothermal activity, not unlike that found at Earth’s underwater volcanoes.
We've completed two dives at Lo'ihi Seamount, an underwater volcano with hydrothermal venting that researchers think is similar to what they may find in ocean worlds in outer space. That bright yellow hue may come from iron oxide vent deposits or iron-eating microbes! pic.twitter.com/L3xM7lN06e— E/V Nautilus (@EVNautilus) August 30, 2018
The hope is that data gathered by the SUBSEA program will help scientists understand the conditions most conducive to microbial life, and where to find parallel conditions on other worlds ahead of future space missions.