Entertainment Magazine

Aliens of the Deep


Chosen not only for their skill in their respective sciences but also for their ability to explain their work in entertaining ways that will inspire motion picture audiences around the world, Cameron’s crew of scientists and researchers are some of the people who will be working on the great questions of extraterrestrial life in the next twenty years.

Joining Cameron on the expedition are Marine Scientist Dijanna Figueroa, Astrobiologist Pan Conrad, NASA Planetary Scientist Kelly Snook, and Geological Environmental Scientist/Astrobiologist Kevin Hand.

“These young people are really driven by the need to know,” Cameron says. “Inside, they’re all saying, ‘This is an adventure. This is the coolest thing that a person could be doing.’We wanted to portray that, put it on film.

“I wasn’t expecting my ‘cast’to be as good as it is,” Cameron continues. “They’re young, eager men and women; they’re enthusiastic, they’re willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to explore these mysteries. But the big discovery for me was that they’re all really cool—their sense of wonder and their passion for their work is infectious.”

Dijanna Figueroa, a Ph.D. candidate in Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, relished the chance to study life at extreme depth.

“On every dive, I saw something I’ve never seen before,” she notes excitedly.

“I was on this trip to collect animals for UCSB,” she continues. “We have an aquarium system at our lab where we can keep hydrothermal vent animals at the same pressure, temperature, and chemical environment they experience in nature and this allows us to study them under very controlled conditions over very long periods of time. It was months of work with a huge scientific payoff.”

“The challenge was getting good samples,” says Cameron. “Dijanna made four or five dives, so she’s now, at the age of 24 or 25, a hardened submersible diver.” Pan (short for Pamela) Conrad is an astrobiologist who works for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which is run by the California Institute of Technology for NASA.

“Aliens of the Deep” represented new ground for Conrad, but she embraced the opportunity.

“The sea floor is a very different exploration environment than the ones we’re accustomed to at JPL,” she says. “But when somebody offers you a chance to jump into a submarine and go to the hydrothermal vents, you can’t say no.”

According to the NASA Astrobiology Institute, astrobiologists seek to answer several important questions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life: How do habitable worlds form and how do they evolve? How did living systems emerge? How can we recognize other biospheres? How have the geophysical nature of the Earth and its biosphere influenced each other over time?

Conrad gives some insight into how she and her colleagues might go about answering these questions:

“When you think about how you might look for life on another planet, you have to first design tools that could tell you if what you’re looking at is actually life. So, we’ve been working on a tool at JPL which might give you a clue that you’re looking at life without having to touch it, so that you don’t contaminate it if it actually is life.”

With this in mind, Conrad, working with JPL’s Arthur Lonne Lane, designed, tested, and built an instrument specifically for these dives that would test this concept.

“We built an instrument that uses light to tickle the molecules that are part of the material they’re probing, and those molecules will tell you what they are—if you use a laser light to illuminate organic material, certain molecules in that material will glow with a very specific color, and that color tells you which molecules are present. It’s also got a camera, so we can see what’s happening in real time—we know exactly what we’re looking at.”

Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist and Ph.D. student in the geology department at Stanford University, is merging his physics and astronomy background with geology and biology in an effort to understand the origin, distribution, and evolution of life in our solar system. Along with trying to understand the origin of life on Earth, he is interested in the possibility of life on other planets.

“My focus is on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter,” he says. “It’s believed that there’s a liquid water ocean underneath the moon’s icy outer shell. If that’s right, then these hydrothermal sites may be of some interest to the astrobiology community looking at ecosystems in icy moons or on icy planets. Studying life in the extreme environments of Earth, and in particular at the hydrothermal vents, helps us understand how life itself works. Life on Earth is bizarre and beautiful, and we still have so much yet to learn with regard to what makes life possible. Our understanding of life on Earth guides us as we search for life elsewhere in the solar system.”

Finally, Kelly Snook, a NASA planetary scientist who joined Cameron on the expedition, makes the connection between “inner space and outer space,” she says. “There are many comparisons we can draw between this expedition and a mission to Mars. We can learn valuable lessons about how to explore another planet scientifically. We’ve learned a lot that can feed directly into the planning of space missions.”

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