NASA is planning a trip to an undersea volcano in an effort to better understand how life might survive in space. The space agency will go on a 21-day expedition called SUBSEA to the Lo'ihi volcano in Hawaii to understand how microbes live in extreme conditions.
The active volcano sits 3,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean, 50 miles off the shore of Hawaii’s Big Island. NASA will set off on the underwater mission in August.
Both Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa are suspected of having heat-emitting vents and oceans beneath their thick, ice shells. Studying the rocks and bacteria around the Lo'ihi volcano could unlock ways to look for life in space.
Deepsea vents are common in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, these vents spew out thick “black smoke” that is an essential food source for extremophile microbes and worm-like creatures nearby. Lobsters, snails and crabs have also been known to feed off this “smoke”.
Life underwater could offer insight into life in space
But unlike other vents, Lo'ihi isn’t quite as hot which makes it closer to what scientists expect to someday explore in space. Being a space agency, NASA doesn’t have its own underwater equipment ready to go, so instead, it is collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) will be launched off the main ship and sent down to Lo'ihi to collect rock and bacteria samples. "It's extremely rich in diversity," said Craig Moyer, a volcano microbiologist at Western Washington University who has been studying Lo'ihi for over two decades.
What is fascinating about the vibrant microbial community around the vent is the way it changes and adapts to Lo'ihi's fluctuating activity. Lo'ihi's last eruption was in 1996, and the volcano has been cooling off since then, which means its vents aren’t emitting much hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide.
Instead, microbes close to the vents feed on the iron, which is the most common chemical available. However, as the volcano starts to heat up again new chemicals will appear and microbes will change or adapt to the changing conditions.
"My fingers are crossed that we’ll see an uptick in the activity once again," said Moyer. The recently erupted Kilauea Volcano is likely to share at least some deep plumbing system with Lo'ihi which could mean some change in activity is likely to occur soon.
NASA hopes to find new methods on how to look for life
NASA plans to extend the SUBSEA mission into 2019 when it will visit another underwater volcano. The researchers hope their work underneath the oceans will equip astronauts with knowledge on how and where to look for life in our solar system.
Enceladus and Europa who both have some water bodies on them are thought to be prime targets for these investigations "Anywhere you’ve got liquid water you’ve got a high probability of finding life," said Moyer. "I'm rooting for both of them."