A Deep Ocean Dive Is Training NASA For Space

25:28 minutes

NASA is exploring a deep-sea volcano off the coast of Hawaii as a test run for human and robotic missions to Mars and beyond. The mission, dubbed SUBSEA, or Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog, will examine microbial life on the Lō`ihi seamount.

The mission has two objectives. The first is to learn about the operational and communication challenges of a real space mission through a deep ocean dive. A team of operations specialists and scientists at the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center will serve as ‘mission control,’ while scientists on the Nautilus ship operating a deep ocean robot will stand in for astronauts orbiting Mars, controlling a surface rover.

[The origin of the word ‘cell.’]

The second goal of the SUBSEA mission is to learn more about the geology and chemistry that support life in the deep ocean, as a glimpse of what alien life might require in places like the oceans of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

In this segment, NASA geobiologist and SUBSEA principal investigator Darlene Lim, oceanographer Julie Huber and volcanologist Shannon Kobs-Nawotniak join Ira to explain this hunt for weird life in the oceans—and what it could teach us about the search for life in space.

Check out pictures of SUBSEA’s mission below.

SUBSEA mission overlooking the undersea volcano
The front porch of ROV Hercules is seen loaded with sampling equipment as the vehicle explores the seafloor. Credit: OET/Nautilus Live
Mahi mahi spotted in the water column as ROV Hercules neared the surface after a successful dive. Credit: OET/Nautilus Live
Markers from previous expeditions exploring Lo’ihi Seamount served as navigational aides and sample sites for the SUBSEA site. Credit: OET/Nautilus Live
Yellow sediment may be a result of iron oxide deposits from hydrothermal vents or iron-eating microbes. Credit: OET/Nautilus Live

Segment Guests

Darlene Lim

Darlene Lim is a geobiologist and Principal Investigator of SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog), based at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

Shannon Kobs Nawotniak

Shannon Kobs-Nawotniak is a volcanologist for SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog). She’s based at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.

Julie Huber

Julie Huber is an oceanographer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of underwater, we usually associate NASA with exploring space, right? A spacecraft to Pluto, a land rover, an orbiter, a satellite. But one of NASA’s latest missions, it’s the space agency has set its sights on the seas. The mission is called SUBSEA– Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog– SUBSEA. And true to the name, they’re exploring an underwater volcano half a mile deep off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island

It is a test run for learning to pilot more complicated missions out in space and to learn how we might hunt for life out there, too. Here to tell us about it are Darlene Lim, a geobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. She’s also principal investigator of the SUBSEA mission, and she joins us today from the E/V Nautilus off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island.




IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.

DARLENE LIM: Thanks for having me on the show. This is great.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great.

DARLENE LIM: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Also with us is Shannon Kobs Nawotniak, a volcanologist for the SUBSEA mission, and based in Idaho State University. And she joins us today from the Inner Space Center, University of Rhode Island. Welcome to Science Friday.

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this mission, Darlene. Dr. Lim, you are calling us from the ship where you are right now, right?

DARLENE LIM: That’s right. That’s where I am. Mm-hmm.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us exactly where you are.

DARLENE LIM: Yes, I’m– certainly. Yes, so we are about 30 kilometers just off shore of the kind of Southeast portion of the Big Island of Hawaii. And we’re sitting almost right on top of what’s called the Lo’ihi Seamount. So as you mentioned, the top of the seamount is about 1,000 meters down, so about a kilometer down. But then it actually descends down even deeper than that to greater than five kilometers in depth.

So it’s a huge geological environment within which we’re trying to explore. And as you mentioned, one of the purposes of our project is to understand this environment not only as it stands as a point of interest in terms of ocean sciences and Earth sciences, but also as a point of comparison for other systems in our solar system such as the oceans on Enceladus and Europa. So it’s an incredibly rich environment for us to explore scientifically.

And then operationally, I’m on a ship, as you mentioned. But then Shannon’s on shore at the Inner Space Center, which is essentially an analog for mission control. And so we’re interacting with these folks onshore, our intellectual capital, a whole bunch of scientists ranging from graduate students to post-doc to senior scientists. And they’re providing us with feedback every step of the way to help us basically reach the highest scientific productivity we can as we go about this exploration and scientific data gathering.

IRA FLATOW: So Shannon, you’re sort of like, as she says, mission control and watching– is it real time stuff coming back?

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: Yes. I’m actually here with a whole team of scientists and researchers that we’re watching live as these things are going on. It is my first time getting to work with a research vessel, so it is fascinating trying to learn how to actually do this, how to actually give guidance from Earth, from mission control, to help them give us the science that we need to be able to move forward with the project.

IRA FLATOW: Sort of sounds like an undersea thing that Bob Ballard would be doing not too far from you.

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: So Bob is intimately involved with this project. Of course, the Nautilus is managed and staffed by crew from the Ocean Exploration Trust and also, of course, the funding comes from NASA and then NOAA to enable this project. But yeah, I mean, this is a really exciting opportunity.

And we can talk about all the scientific and operational research elements, but really at the crux of it, what I think is very personally satisfying is that we’re bringing together ocean sciences, the ocean sciences community, as well as the planetary scientific community and the human spaceflight community, all into one umbrella project. And that’s a dialogue that I think is super important. We don’t want to keep reinventing the wheel every time that we think about sending robots or humans into space. We want to learn from best practices of other groups that go out and do a whole bunch of different types of research in very extreme environments.

And this is certainly a challenging environment. You have humans that are on a small vessel that are trying to do their best and work at– 24/7 we’re on and off shifts. And we’re trying to do our best, despite the elements that have come in at us, including Hurricane Lane. So it definitely is a wonderful analog to space.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about undersea exploration right outside of the Big Island in Hawaii with Darlene Lim and Shannon Kobs Nawotniak– sorry, Shannon, for–

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: That’s OK. It’s a bad one. It’s Nawotniak.

IRA FLATOW: Nawotniak OK. So this basically is sort of a rehearsal because we’re thinking about going to maybe some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn where there may be life under sea. And so you’re practicing for a mission sort of like that. Is that what you’re doing?

DARLENE LIM: Well it’s sort of like that. We’re practicing for a variety of different things. What we’re doing right now actually is, we’re actually at the beginning of our preparations to launch a submersible– two submersibles, actually. One’s called the Hercules. One’s called Argus. And Hercules actually has a lot of sampling devices on it, which allow us to capture water which is coming out through some of the hydrothermal systems, the vents that are in the Lo’ihi Seamount area.

And so as we collect that water, we’re actually storing it. It will get analyzed. Some of it will get analyzed on the ship. Other components will get analyzed onshore. But every time that we analyze it, we learn a bit more about what type of chemical constituents are inside that water, how that water might be reacting with the rock around it, what kind of microbial life might be associated with that rock, and what the rock looks like in general.

We get a better sense of what kind of chemical energy might be coursing through the system, and it gives us a platform, kind of a foundation from which we can springboard and develop hypotheses and ideas about systems such as Enceladus, where we know that there is some sort of water rock reaction happening in the deep sub-ocean, deep ocean environment of that moon. And we certainly know a few things about what that chemistry might be like from the Cassini mission data that’s come back.

So putting all that together helps us to formulate plans for how we might sample, certainly, and what kind of things we might want to sample in the future, as we send robotic missions [INTERPOSING VOICES] far off to these places.

IRA FLATOW: I would imagine you also have to practice the time delay that’s involved in sending signals or instructions back and forth. Are these robots going to be sort of able to work on their own, or are they totally controlled?

DARLENE LIM: Right. Yeah, so certainly, in terms of exploring Enceladus, that will be a robotic mission. And it will be very much the same way that we conduct planetary exploration right now, in that you are sending signals to the robot itself. And then that takes a long time, depending on the distance that you’re talking about, to actually reach the robot and then actually enact whatever it is that you need it to do.

But what we’re actually interested in when it comes to the delay isn’t necessarily associated with that type of robotic mission control interaction. It’s more actually to do with the fact that the ship is a really great environment, in terms of its capacity to act as an analog or a point of comparison for humans, for example, orbiting around Mars. And then having to interact with people like Shannon onshore or on Earth when they’re actually conducting robotic research on the surface of Mars, in which case there’s not a long lag time between when somebody might want to push the robot forward and it goes forward, unlike right now, there’s a huge lag between when we send a signal from the Earth to Mars and want the robot to move forward.

But still, there will be a disconnect. There will be a time delay between those people around Mars and then Shannon on Earth. That’s the type of thing that we’re interested in.

IRA FLATOW: And we’ll talk more about it. We’re going to take a break and come back and talk about how deep sea microbes might teach us something about extraterrestrial life, is like Saturn’s Enceladus. As we’re talking about, we’ll look more into it. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about NASA’s SUBSEA mission exploring an undersea volcano off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island as a simulated mission to space. My guests are Shannon Kobs Nawotniak, volcanologist at the SUBSEA mission based at Idaho State University, and she’s talking to us from the Inner Space Center at University of Rhode Island. Darlene Lim, geobiologist at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and a principal investigator of the SUBSEA mission.

In addition to simulating a trip to Mars or beyond, the SUBSEA mission is also investigating the geological and chemical clues that support life in extreme places, like a volcano vent under the seas, as a possible glimpse at the factors that might help extraordinary extraterrestrial microbes survive under the seas of, say, Enceladus.

And I’d like to bring on another guest now who specializes in ocean microbes. Julie Huber is an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. She also joins us from the Inner Space Center at University of Rhode Island. Welcome back to Science Friday.

JULIE HUBER: Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: So this sounds like a really exciting mission. Give us an idea of what’s living down on this vent down there. Is it a tube worm, crab, weird stuff like that?

JULIE HUBER: Yeah, so the underwater volcano we’re working at, Lo’ihi Seamount, doesn’t look like most of the systems we’ve studied on Earth. There are no giant black smokers. There are no big tube worm communities. And actually, if you tune into our video, it almost looks like the surface of Mars. It is covered in this red iron, and there are not a large lot of large animals. And so it’s a really, I think, great analog for thinking about life on other ocean worlds because it’s almost completely dominated by single-celled life form, so by microbes.

IRA FLATOW: So you have, like, a big mat of microbes on the bottom there. Is that what your picture is showing us?

JULIE HUBER: Yeah, so basically where these fluids are leaking out of the sea floor, they’re bringing a bunch of interesting chemical constituents from reacting with rock at very high temperatures. And Lo’ihi is loaded in iron, so all that orange stuff you’re seeing is various forms of iron and in many cases microbes that are eating that iron.

IRA FLATOW: Sounds like you get very turned on, very excited by this kind of stuff.

JULIE HUBER: Well you know, I’ve been staring at the sea floor for over 20 years now, and it still gets me really jazzed. Sometimes I can’t believe that what I’m looking at is actually on our planet. It’s that foreign.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know what kinds of microbes these are? Are they bacteria? Are the archaea perhaps? Do we know?

JULIE HUBER: So the microbes that we can actually see in those iron mats are pretty well-studied, and they are mostly bacteria, a group of bacteria, like I mentioned, that are eating that iron. What we know much less about are the microbes that are coming out of those hydrothermal vents, so actually in those fluids. And we think that those are microbes that actually live beneath the sea floor in the rocky matrix that makes up the entire volcano. And so we are trying to capture those fluids and study them.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying that the microbes on the mat of the ocean are not the same of what’s coming out, oozing out? What happens to those that are oozing out? Where do they go, or what happens?

JULIE HUBER: So that’s a really good question, and it’s something we’re trying to figure out. The microbes that we can see on the sea floor in those iron mats, they like growing, for example, at room temperature. Yet we know coming out of those fluids there are microbes that grow 50 degrees warmer than room temperature. And so we hypothesize that they’re living in a warmer habitat beneath the sea floor, being fed by those volcanic fluids. And we’re just trying to catch them as they leak out.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, wow. Shannon, the Cassini was just out investigating Enceladus. What did it see, and what clues did it give us about geology or possible life?

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: So Cassini is this ice ball that has a liquid-water ocean underneath the ice, and then we think a rocky interior inside of that. And one of the really cool things about Enceladus is when Cassini flew by, it saw these geysers shooting out at the South Pole. And it went through them, and was able to actually measure things.

We know that that ice in the water– the liquid or underneath is water. We know it’s got salts in it. We can actually tell that it’s probably got a warm interaction with the rock underneath that’s really consistent with these hot spot volcanoes like Lo’ihi, and very different from the plate tectonic style ones at mid-ocean ridges, like what Julie was talking about with black smokers. That’s part of why this is such a great location.

IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255 if you have a question. We have a tweet from Alex, interesting tweet. He says between Europa and Enceladus, is one considered a more plausible candidate for extraterrestrial life?

DARLENE LIM: Wow, that’s a great question. It’s funny. We did kind of a talk show with some folks at NASA yesterday. And Penny Boston, who’s the head of astrobiology, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, she was actually asked a similar question. And for her it was like picking between children. You just can’t.

They’re both plausible. They’re both exciting, I think, regions for us to consider going to explore when it comes to astrobiology. And the fact of the matter is that we just don’t know that much. So you can’t really make that kind of judgment call yet. I think it would be very premature. But they’re there. We’re really excited about it, and I think no matter where we go, it will definitely open our minds to what else is possible.

IRA FLATOW: What do you learn from this expedition that would help you, besides the basics. And you’re starting from the basics here. Do you follow this up and then fine-tune and do more and more of these projects?

DARLENE LIM: Yeah, absolutely. And I can answer this kind of at a high level and then let Julie and Shannon answer from their perspectives, but absolutely. From here, we get the samples. We get the data that we are looking for at the end of the expedition. And then from there, it takes a lot of work for folks to then analyze to the level of quality that they’re looking for, so that we can then publish our results, go through a peer review process, and then also to apply our results to mission architecture development, other sorts of engineering discussions and so forth.

So we have to certainly check and double check everything that we bring back so that we can start with a high level of quality and then inject that level of rigor into subsequent conversations. And then next year, we go to sea again. And that expedition will be very much the same as this one in terms of the area that we explore will be complementary to Lo’ihi. And then we’ll have this telepresence set up as well.

But the fundamental difference will be that we’re going to inject a latency, A time delay between the ship and shore, and start to look at how the whole system fluctuates or maybe reacts to that new working environment which will be much more analogous to working when you have humans orbiting Mars and then humans on Earth interacting with them.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that a mission like this, does it help NASA decide where to go in the future, by what you learn underwater here? Darlene, what do you think?

DARLENE LIM: Yeah, absolutely. I do. And that’s the whole reason why we’re here. To get to this point to actually do this research, we had to, as a team, gather up our ideas and then present that forward in a proposal. And that goes through a very rigorous evaluation process to decide whether or not this work will have impact, if it will have an expected level of significance to NASA that they would like to see.

And certainly it passed that muster, and we’re here now. And so any bit of knowledge that we’re going to be gaining from the work that Shannon, Julie, and so many others are doing on this project, we’re going to be able to make much better decisions. We’ll be much more informed around mission design when it comes to robotic missions to these ocean world systems. And also operationally, when it comes to both those types of missions as well as these other future human spaceflight endeavors.

IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255. Julie, could it be possible that there are life forms living in some of these strange places on Earth that are unlike anything else on the tree of life? I mean, we had a program a few weeks ago about biologist Carl Woese who discovered archaea. And he actually received some of his funding from NASA, did he not? I mean, obviously people know that we might find– it’s possible you might find something totally new, Julie.

JULIE HUBER: Absolutely. And this is the fun of being a microbiologist, that the tree of life evolves constantly as we make new discoveries and rebuild the tree of life. And Carl’s work was the beginning of that framework. There have been completely new lineages of microbial life discovered in the deep ocean, but they’ve also been discovered in soil, in your backyard. They’ve been discovered in ponds. Basically every habitat we examine, we find new microbial life.

What’s really different about doing it in the deep ocean is that there are habitats in the deep ocean that are untouched by humans for billions of years. And we know that microbial life has been on this planet for billions of years. And so we’re really studying microbial life in a more isolated way than in the surface world. And so there’s huge potential, and there have already been some really amazing discoveries.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255. Is it possible, Julie, that these bacteria living down could have some useful commercial purposes when you discover them?

JULIE HUBER: There are all sorts of practical things you can do with microbes. To be clear, I don’t do anything practical.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re proud of it.

JULIE HUBER: But I love interacting with scientists from both industry and biomedical world who are interested in, for example, the genes that these microbes carry, you know the enzymes they can make. Can they help us in molecular biology, for example, in DNA sequencing, in making better dish soap, things like that. There’s a lot of potential, and it’s a very active area of research. And it’s something I always keep in mind in trying to share my data, so that those scientists can move their science forward, too.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Framingham, Massachusetts. Nancy, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

NANCY: [INAUDIBLE] Yes, yes. I just wanted to say that my father’s Naval Academy classmate, Bill Anderson, took the nuclear submarine Nautilus underneath the Arctic ice pack. So it was at the North Pole. I think this was approximately May of 1958, when I was a school girl.

It was a big deal. It was quite an achievement at that time. He was followed by another classmate, Jim Calvert, in the submarine Skate, also serviced at the North Pole. And the whole purpose of these expeditions under the Arctic ice pack was basically to map the floor of the Arctic ocean.

Jim Calvert went on to become superintendent of the Naval Academy and is buried in the same cemetery as will be Senator McCain.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you for calling up with that. That was a historic– and actually the Nautilus is on exhibit out there in Groton. I’ve been out there and seen it, and it’s a great place to go visit. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about undersea exploration. It’s always great to have people call in with historical facts, because they know I’m a science historian. So I love to hear– do you ever think about that when you go underwater? Shannon, do you think about, gee, I’m in a long line of underwater explorers?

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: You know, this is my first time, and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to do. I’m used to working on the Earth’s surface where I get satellite imagery and I get all of these precursor things. And suddenly I have really none of that. And it’s kind of like trying to explore a dark room, doing a scavenger hunt with a pen light. And I keep telling myself all of these amazing people were doing this. They’ve done all these great discoveries, and I can do this, too. And it’s such a pleasure to be part of it.

IRA FLATOW: So I imagine this is also– you mentioned and someone mentioned it before, that this is also a teaching moment for learning how the whole staff has to coordinate together, work on the project.

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: Absolutely. It’s really important as we’re trying to get real, good science out of this that we’re working together as a team. We’re not just a microbiologist, a vulcanologist, a geochemist that are all just getting things from a ship. We’re working together to find things that we can correlate together, make sure all of our science ties together so we can build that entire chemical food chain that you were hearing about a minute ago.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255. How long will this be running for, the project? And how will you know– I’ll throw this out any and all of you. Shannon, let me ask you first. How will you know this is a success?

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: Well from my perspective, I need to have a certain number of rocks from these different textures and from these different water seeps. And there’s going to be different levels of success. It depends on how many rocks I get to have and how well I can link them up to the others. But we need all of these samples from them as well.

IRA FLATOW: Is this sort of a tethered robot that goes down and picks stuff off the floor?

SHANNON KOBS NAWOTNIAK: Yeah, we’re using a remotely operated vehicle, so there’s no people inside of the vehicle, and it is tethered back to the ship, being controlled by pilots on the ship.

IRA FLATOW: Darlene Lim is a geobiologist. What would be success for you?

DARLENE LIM: You know, honestly as PI, the number one thing is safety. I want to make sure everybody comes back in good health, and the safety of the equipment as well. And then just making sure that people like Shannon and Julie and all of the scientists in general and the researchers that we have looking at the ops and the tech end of things get the data that they needed to acquire over the course of this expedition.

I want to mention that only about 9% of our lives is spent doing the actual field work. The other, you know, 91%, 92% of the time is actually spent back home organizing this, getting ready thoughtfully for this type of expedition because you really only get one shot. And that’s another pressure that’s put on us, which is very analogous to going into space.

It’s hard to do this research. It’s really important we get the data back for a number of different reasons. And then that additional pressure of working in this difficult environment, it creates an incredible opportunity to learn in a very, what’s called high fidelity, really great analog for a number of reasons that we’ve discussed. So definitely safety first, and then our research. Let’s meet our goals. That’s our priority.

IRA FLATOW: And this volcano off the coast of Hawaii, the Big Island, a unique volcano someday perhaps creating another part of Hawaii.

DARLENE LIM: Yes. We have actually had the incredible opportunity to do some mapping on our way to the Lo’ihi Seamount, of the offshore region where the lava has been entering into the ocean. And so we’ve been doing this mapping for Adam Soule who’s at WHOI as well as the USGS and ourselves, so we can start to understand what’s actually been going on in the ocean as a consequence of all the seismic activity and the eruptions that have been going on on the mainland.

IRA FLATOW: That’s exciting.

DARLENE LIM: We’ve really had a wonderful experience.

IRA FLATOW: Well, good luck to all of you, and we’ll be checking in on your progress. Hopefully we’ll have you back on to talk about it. Have a good mission. Darlene Lim, geobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, principal investigator of the SUBSEA mission. Julie Huber is an oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Shannon Kobs Nawotniak, a vulcanologist at SUBSEA mission based at Idaho State University.

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