Jupiter’s moon Europa. Image credit: NASA


Alvin submersible. Image Credit: NOAA

Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine (part 1): Explorations to the Sea Floors of Earth and Europa

Posted: 01/10/13
Author: Garret Fitzpatrick

Summary: This series follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

This is Part 1 of a 6-part series that tells the story of humankind’s efforts to understand the origins of life, by looking for it in extreme environments where life thrives without relying on the Sun as an energy source. This series follows an oceanographic expedition to the Mid-Cayman Rise, led by Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NASA’s efforts to plan a future mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. By understanding how life can survive without the Sun, we may discover how life began on our planet, and whether or not Earth is the only place in the universe capable of supporting a biosphere.

On February 17, 1977, Tjeerd van Andel of Stanford University and Jack Corliss of Oregon State took a few last breaths of the South Pacific air before closing the basketball hoop-sized hatch of the research submersible, Alvin. Their pilot, Jack Donnelly, then guided the 23-foot long craft down 9,000 feet towards the seafloor, away from the team’s research vessel Knorr and mother ship, Lulu. Ninety minutes later, the trio reached the bottom.

Six hours and forty-seven minutes later, they were back at the surface. When the science team extracted the first water samples taken from the seafloor, the entire lab on the Knorr was filled with a horrible stench: rotten eggs.

As terrible as this smell was, the discovery of hydrogen sulfide on the seafloor was a watershed moment in humankind’s understanding of the origins of life.

Read more: Searching for Life Where the Sun Don’t Shine (part 1): Explorations to the Sea Floors of Earth and Europa — Astrobiology Magazine.

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