NASA is preparing an expedition to Hawaii's Lo'ihi volcano, which lies more than 3,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean, to understand how life can exist in remote, lightless places in the solar system. The undertaking, named SUBSEA, will explore the sunken volcano, which harbors rich microbial life, to gather data.
Lo'ihi, an active volcano 50 miles off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island, which started forming roughly 400,000 years ago, is expected to emerge above sea level in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years. In 1996, 4,070 earthquakes were recorded at Lo'ihi. One section of the volcano, Pele's Vents, collapsed upon itself, forming the newly named Pele's Pit. Lo'ihi, which has been active since then, last erupted in 1996, shortly before the earthquakes began.
NASA will begin their mission in August, using rocks and bacteria to plan robotic explorations of this underwater world. The space agency hopes to learn more about the conditions on Saturn's Enceladus moon and Jupiter's Europa moon, which are believed to contain heat-producing vents and oceans below their outer ice shells.
Deep sea vents, which exist in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, emit thick plumes of "black smoke," which nurture extremophile microbes, as well as goosefish, lobsters, snails, and crabs. According to ScienceAlert, most life on Earth depends on photosynthesis, the process by which plants create energy from sunlight. Yet deep sea volcanoes, depend on chemosynthesis, “the bacteria harnessing chemical energy, such as the reaction between hydrogen sulfide from the vent, and oxygen from the seawater around them, to produce sugar molecules.”
"Lo'ihi is different," Darlene Lim, who heads the SUBSEA program, said in an interview. She suspects that if deep sea vents exist on other planets, they're similar Lo'ihi's, which aren't as hot as black smokers in the Atlantic. Black smokers can reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit, though scientists believe the vents on Enceladus range from 120 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to explore Lo'ihi for 21 days. Remote operated vehicles (ROVs) will descend to Lo'ihi to gather rocks and survey the microbial environment surrounding the volcano.
"It's extremely rich in diversity," said Craig Moyer, a volcano microbiologist at Western Washington University. Moyer has been studying Lo'ihi for over twenty years. Since Lo'ihi's 1996 eruption, the vents have cooled off, therefore, the volcano isn't emitting as much hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide, leaving the microbes to feed on iron.
"My fingers are crossed that we’ll see an uptick in the activity once again," said Moyer, who added that Kilauea, which is currently active, probably has the same deep sea system as Lo'ihi.