Ambience: Depth-x Underwater
One thousand feet underwater, a robot is exploring the bottom of Zacaton. Located in central Mexico, itâ€™s the worldâ€™s deepest water-filled sinkhole. Iâ€™m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
â€œMicrobial processes that have probably been going on for thousands or millions of years are happening down there, and no oneâ€™s ever had access to them.â€
John Spear is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He helped to develop the DEPTHX robot, which was designed to autonomously explore and map underwater locations which are inaccessible or too dangerous for humans, places like Zacaton.
â€œAnd then, I was thinking, well, if youâ€™re making a map, why canâ€™t you check the environmental parameters around in the water, like the pH, the temperature, the dissolved oxygen, the salinity, that sort of thing. So, you can measure those things and, effectively, overlay that on your map. You can also collect samples from points of interest. You can collect water samples. You can collect solid samples that divers couldnâ€™t reach. You could literally collect things that no oneâ€™s ever been able to get to before. All the surfaces down there afford an opportunity to explore a place thatâ€™s never been explored before, thatâ€™s unknown, and we can obtain samples from those places.â€
Eventually, scientists hope to send a robot like DEPTHX to explore Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. But, exploring so far from home introduces new challenges.
â€œWith the ability here on Earth to study life on Earth, DEPTHX gives us the opportunity to collect samples. We can take them back to the lab, extract DNA out of those samples, and determine the microbes who are living there. If DEPTHX went to Europa, we couldnâ€™t do that because thereâ€™s no laboratory on the surface of the ice of Europa. The laboratory would have to be on the robot itself, and that hasnâ€™t been developed yet.â€
Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation, with additional support from NASA. Iâ€™m Jim Metzner.