NASA and Challenger Deep

Last night, NASA was again a part of exploration history. But this time, it was a mission below, not above the Earth. Kevin Hand, a NASA astrobiologist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was a member of the team that supported acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) in the first successful human solo mission to the deepest part of Earth’s ocean, Challenger Deep, in the middle of the Pacific. Kevin, who was among a small group of expedition members to greet Cameron when he emerged from his 6.8 mile excursion under the sea, will analyze samples the filmmaker brought back to see what they might tell us about the possibility of life under the ocean of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The Earth’s deep ocean environment provides the closest analog to conditions expected for the Europa ocean, which NASA’s Galileo spacecraft first discovered in 2003.

Cameron, who had worked and dove with Kevin as part of Cameron’s earlier Aliens of the Deep IMAX, asked the astrobiologist to join him on this expedition and invited him to analyze the samples he brought back.

Cameron made his historic ocean descent in a specially designed submarine he calls the Deepsea Challenger. The 2.5 story sub descended to the Challenger Deep in 2 hours and 36 minutes. After several hours exploring this never-before seen part of the ocean sea-floor, Cameron made a roughly 70-minute trip back to the surface. Kevin, who serves as JPL’s Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration, is eager to analyze both the water and sediment samples, and subjecting them to temperatures and radiation levels known to exist on the surface of Europa.

While Cameron and his expedition partner, the National Geographic Society, are most interested in what his Deepsea Challenger expedition will tell us about life in the deepest part of the Earth, JPL’s Kevin Hand will bring NASA closer to unraveling the mystery about the possibility of life in one of the farthest points in our solar system.

Congratulations to James Cameron and Kevin Hand for this amazing exploratory achievement.