Recently, a very thought-provoking question has been doing rounds on the internet. The latest question that has sparked the curiosity of people is: “Why did NASA stop exploring the ocean?” Did NASA actually start exploring the ocean?
For most people, it will be hard to establish relevance between NASA and ocean exploration. As far as our mainstream knowledge is concerned, NASA is not associated with ocean exploration and is entirely focused on outer space exploration. However, the latest insights and speculations suggest otherwise. NASA might actually be attempting to peek into the ocean bed to unravel mysteries related not only to the ocean but also space.
But, what makes ocean exploration a hullabaloo in the first place?
The earth is called the ‘blue planet’ for a reason. About 70% of the planet is veiled by ocean bodies. But despite occupying such a humungous area of the entire planet, only 5% of it has been explored to date. Factors such as the unavailability of adequate resources and technology have posed a hindrance to further ocean exploration.
The remaining 95% is what sparks the curious lamps of our minds. Moreover, it is also rumored that we know more about the lands of Mars and the Moon than we know about our own planet’s ocean floor. And what seems likely to be another breakthrough project, NASA is on a mission to alter that perception. More or less, it is embedded with various mysteries.
From submerged icebergs to underwater volcanic eruptions to the Bermuda triangles and erratic whirlpools, the ocean has been the center of origination for all. In addition to these activities, there are numerous underwater creatures who are swarming around within inhabitable habitats. These organisms are not only surviving under such rigid environments but also thriving under extreme conditions.
Besides these objects of fascination, scientists have recently learned that the earth’s ocean depths harbor similar conditions found on other worlds within our Solar System. They could even provide clues about where scientists should be searching for alien life.
The Deepest Zone Of The Ocean
The hadal zone or the hadopelagic zone is the deepest region of the ocean lying within the oceanic trenches. The region is named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, and is a forbidding place unworthy of our name. It extends 11 km (6.8 miles) below the surface of the world’s oceans and consists of deep trenches and troughs. Comparatively, the hadal zone accounts for an area of seabed equivalent to the size of Australia. However, only a few vehicles have been able to survive strolling into this dark abyss.
Why is NASA exploring the ocean?
NASA Scientists are attempting to explore this region and probe the limits of life on earth by studying the hadal zone. In 2019, NASA partnered with the World Hole Organization Institution (WHOI) ever since the confirmation of ice-covered liquid water oceans on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, including Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Titan.
Moreover, NASA communicates in similar language and terms used during space exploration. In recent years marine biologists have sent multiple ‘landers’ equipped with sensors and cameras to ‘crash-land’ on the floor of the hadal zone, where they take measurements.
How is NASA exploring the ocean?
In 2008, the WHOI built the Nereus to plunge to the deepest parts of the ocean. It was supposed to operate either autonomously or to be controlled remotely from the surface. However, the underwater vehicle imploded in 2014 (probably) due to the immense pressure. The team of concerned researchers lost contact with the vehicle seven hours into a planned 9-hour dive at the deepest extent of the trench. After the failure of standard emergency recovery protocols, the team initiated a search near the drive and spotted pieces of debris floating on the sea surface. It was later identified that the pieces were coming from Nereus—indicating a catastrophic implosion.
After the Nereus incident, engineers at WHOI and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked on building a fleet of hadal autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Nereus’s successor, Orpheus, was designed using similar visual navigation technology to NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover. The underwater AUV uses highly sensitive cameras to identify rock formations, shells and other features on the ocean floor to build up 3D maps dotted with landmarks or seabed marks. Through Orpheus, NASA wanted to find and recognize already existing areas of interest and shed light upon new biodiversity of the hadal zone. Tim Shank, a deep sea biologist leading WHOI’s hadal exploration programme, said: “Orpheus is a gateway vehicle. If it works, there is no place in the ocean where you can’t go.”
Additionally, Orpheus incorporates control and mapping software developed by NASA that improves performance obtained with conventional AUV technology and also recon
figure its objective on-the-fly. It is designed to be much lighter, smaller and cheaper than previous underwater vehicles—making it nimbler and allowing it to get into trenches and vents in the seafloor that have never been explored before.
Hadal Zone and Europa
In their findings, scientists and biologists discovered organisms that not only survived but thrived in the hadal zone. Although they were initially perplexed of their existence—provided the pressure down there is very intense (15,000 pounds per square inch) and would squeeze out the individual cells of an animal—they were later convinced of the food cycle being the prime reason.
Creatures in the hadal zone have enzymes called piezolytes (derived from Greek ‘piezin’ for pressure), which stop their cellular membranes and proteins from being crushed under extremely high pressure. Later, scientists were convinced that organisms on the ocean floor survived off dead organic matter – the carcasses of animals, faeces and the steady fall of other organic detritus or marine snow drifting down from above. These findings led to the tallying of similarities between the earth’s ocean and the other ocean worlds of our solar system.
In case of the Jupiter’s moon Europa, a salt-water ocean (40-100 miles deep and containing 2X much water than earth’s ocean water combined) lies below its icy surface. The thick ice sheet prevents sunlight from penetrating below it and is crisscrossed by cracks and fractures. And, the pressure below the icy crust is comparable to the hadal zone.
Therefore, a robot that can explore the earth’s hadal zone without any compromises can do the same on a frozen moon which is miles far from us. And hence, believes NASA, the earth’s ocean floor becomes a suitable testbed for scientists and researchers to develop the technology required to have a successful mission to one of the extraterrestrial-ocean worlds. Despite being challenging, Orpheus could help initiate new beginnings in this matter.
NASA’s SUBSEA and VIPER Mission
In 2017, NASA launched the ‘Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog’ (SUBSEA) to bring together the fields of space and ocean exploration. To date, they have carried out two missions with remotely operated vehicles to hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean. The entire project was focused on finding areas in the deep ocean with good analogous nature (to what is predicted to be active in places like Enceladus).
In 2023, NASA will send a robotic rover to look for water-ice at Moon’s South Pole. Known as the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (Viper), the mission will study ice near the lunar crater Nobile in the hope it could be mined as a resource for rocket fuel or drinking water. While not operating underwater, a rover roaming around on the Moon will face many of the same technical challenges.
The volcanic activity around the Lō`ihi seamount, around 19 miles off the coast of Hawaii, and Gorda Ridge, 75 miles off the US coast where California and Oregon meet, is thought to be similar to what may be found in the ocean worlds on Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Scientists used the two Subsea missions to gain a better understanding of the geology and chemistry of these vents and the life found around them.
Why is NASA exploring the ocean?
As suggested by studies, the hadal zone supports a rich (although alien) ecosystem life. Each creature found in the zone has evolved to survive in the extreme pressures, cold temperatures and pitch blackness found in the hadal zone. Although sending robots to Europa and Enceladus may be a future project, NASA seems already prepared to implement its analyses from deep ocean exploration to space missions.
Ocean and space explorations share many similarities. Both regions harbor treacherous environments and are explored by robots as they cannot be explored by humans. NASA’s current programs can help groom astronauts for controlling robotic equipment from a lunar base in the future too. While NASA believes its oceanographic explorations have yielded numerous scientific discoveries, it is also providing information that could be vital if we hope to continue living in a world with healthy oceans. It means that with each step towards the exploration of other worlds, we can learn a little bit more about some of the most unexplored parts of the earth.