AQUARIUM TEST HELPS SCIENTISTS LOOK FOR LIFE IN EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS

MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA 91109.  TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

Contact at JPL:Mary Hardin, (818) 354-0344
Contact at MBA: Mimi Drummond, (831) 648-4918

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 20, 1998

NASA's search for life elsewhere in the solar system is
bringing space scientists to the giant kelp forest exhibit at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium to test a new scientific probe that might
one day look for life in oceans that may exist on Jupiter's icy
moon Europa.

     Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are
conducting these first-time engineering tests at the California
aquarium as a precursor to an experiment that will place a
scientific probe in an underwater Hawaiian volcanic vent later
this year. The Lo'ihi Underwater Volcanic Vent Mission Probe will
investigate an undersea volcano located 27 kilometers (20 miles)
east of the Big Island of Hawaii at a depth of about 1,300 meters
(4,250 feet).

     "The purpose of using the Monterey Bay Aquarium kelp tank is
to begin testing the instruments in an aquatic environment that
contains some biological material that will stimulate and test
the hardware," said JPL's Dr. Lonne Lane, principal investigator
for the experiment.  "The information to be gathered from these
experiments at the aquarium and later in Hawaii will prepare us
for future missions to difficult places like Antarctica's Lake
Vostok (under 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of ice), and below the
surface of Jupiter's ice-encrusted moon Europa."

     The use of the aquarium also provides a cost-effective,
controlled environment for this first experiment. Open ocean
opportunities with deep-diving submersibles are extremely limited
and often expensive, Lane explained.

     "As part of JPL's new astrobiology effort, we are bringing
new instrumentation and approaches to areas that in the past have
been deemed either very difficult or impossible to explore," he
said. 

     "The long-range goal of this experiment is a multi-faceted
investigation of deep ocean volcanic vents and sea floor cracks
from which very hot water flow out into the deep ocean. The
foremost question we are trying to answer is: Can and do simple
biological species exist within the hot water vents?  If so, what
are the temperature limits for their survival and what are the
chemical conditions they need for growth?" Lane said.

     The search for life and organisms in extreme environments
has prompted scientists to examine the thin, gelatinous
(jellyfish-like) veils of material that have been previously
observed at underwater volcanic hot water vents.  Although there
have been only a few observations of this material, on at least
one occasion the white material has appeared to actually come
from the vent throat.  Measurements of thermal conditions inside
the vents have produced a range of temperatures from near 80 C
(176 F) to almost 350 C (662 F).  The presence of life forms
inside these vents would challenge what scientists believe is the
accepted temperature range for life to exist. Currently the
accepted temperature range is about -5 C to 110 C (23 F to 230
F), according to Lane.

     After the August tests in Monterey, the team will take the
probe to Hawaii in October.

     "The goal of the Lo'ihi mission in Hawaii is to develop an
instrumented underwater probe that can be placed inside these
deep, hot water vents.  The probe will determine temperature,
chemical state, nutrient supply, the identity of organic material
and conduct limited visual imaging," said JPL's Lloyd French,
project lead and system architect for the probe mission.  "The
first experiments will concentrate on temperature and imaging the
vent walls, while the chemical and spectroscopic instruments are
being developed for the second year deployment. The scientific
probe will be placed inside the underwater vent by a robotic arm
controlled from within an underwater submersible."

     The Lo'ihi mission is a joint venture between JPL and the
University of Hawaii, with involvement from Hawaii Undersea
Research Laboratories and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

     JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology,
is conducting the tests for NASA's Office of Space Sciences,
Washington, DC.

                            #####

8-19-98 MAH
#9883


Back to "Sciences"


Back to the main menu