Before the Europa Clipper mission can head to Jupiter’s system in a few years’ time, NASA wants to be prepared and to know exactly what to look for when the spacecraft goes off in search of alien life on the gas giant’s moon Europa. Similar missions are slated to investigate Saturn’s moon Enceladus, another ocean world that holds high promise of hosting extraterrestrial life.
With the discovery of possible water plumes on Europa and the findings from NASA’s Cassini probe, which revealed that Enceladus is spewing water vapor and organic compounds from beneath its frozen surface, these two moons seem to be our best bet of finding signs of life beyond Earth.
“Scientists think these moons are good places to look for potential life, because water interacting with rock on their sea floors could yield chemical reactions that would make microbial metabolism possible,” NASA stated in a recent news release.
To getter a better grasp on the whole phenomenon, the space agency is launching a new research project aimed at studying our planet’s underwater volcanoes.
Such deep-sea locations, particularly the Lo’ihi seamount off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, are regarded as analog environments for the ocean worlds Enceladus and Europa, which means that their hydrothermal activity comes close to what researchers are expecting to find underneath the icy crust of the two moons.
The project, titled Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog, or SUBSEA for short, combines ocean and space exploration and will take a close look at the bubbling springs of the Lo’ihi seamount.
Located 22 miles off the southeast coast of Hawaii, this underwater volcano lies 3,000 feet beneath the ocean surface and “could be similar to seafloor volcanoes that may exist on Europa and Enceladus,” note NASA officials.
“Deep space and the deep sea are not as different as you might think,” NASA revealed in a separate news release describing the SUBSEA project.
This new venture, set to take place this year, is designed to simulate a space mission at sea and “will study the conditions around Lo’ihi’s seafloor springs across a range of pressures and temperatures,” informs the space agency.
“Lo’ihi is an especially good place to test predictions about seafloor hydrothermal systems and their ability to support life.”
Embarking on the upcoming expedition are NASA scientists together with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from various universities. The team will be boarding the “Nautilus” vessel, which is equipped with two remotely operated vehicles — underwater robots that can dive to the low depths of the Lo’ihi seamount and investigate its volcanic environment.