Astrobiologist helps IMAX director film

Jan 16, 2005

Graduate student Kevin Hand explores the potential for life on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, for his doctoral work in geological and environmental sciences. 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. Serving as a planetary scientist alongside Kelly Snook of NASA, 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.

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.

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."

Source: Stanford University (by Kenneth M. Dixon)

Explore further: Amazing raw Cassini images from this week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers create engineered energy absorbing material

21 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —Materials like solid gels and porous foams are used for padding and cushioning, but each has its own advantages and limitations. Gels are effective as padding but are relatively heavy; gel performance ...

Why NASA studies the ultraviolet sun

31 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —You cannot look at the sun without special filters, and the naked eye cannot perceive certain wavelengths of sunlight. Solar physicists must consequently rely on spacecraft that can observe ...

Recommended for you

Amazing raw Cassini images from this week

12 hours ago

When Saturn is at its closest to Earth, it's three-quarters of a billion miles away—or more than a billion kilometers! That makes these raw images from the ringed planet all the more remarkable.

Europe launches two navigation satellites

12 hours ago

Two satellites for Europe's rival to GPS were lifted into space on Friday to boost the Galileo constellation to six orbiters of a final 30, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.

SpaceX gets 10-year tax exemption for Texas site

12 hours ago

Cameron County commissioners have agreed to waive 10 years of county taxes as part of an agreement bringing the world's first commercial site for orbital rocket launches to the southernmost tip of Texas.

Spectacular supernova's mysteries revealed

12 hours ago

(Phys.org) —New research by a team of UK and European-based astronomers is helping to solve the mystery of what caused a spectacular supernova in a galaxy 11 million light years away, seen earlier this ...

Supernova seen in two lights

13 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The destructive results of a mighty supernova explosion reveal themselves in a delicate blend of infrared and X-ray light, as seen in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra ...

User comments : 0