Deep-sea exploration breakthrough to guide future space exploration missions

March 24, 2021

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

Scientists from Arizona State University, who are a part of the Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog (SUBSEA) program, have pioneered a new approach to the scientific process of geochemical exploration for our Earth and beyond. At 2,700 meters below sea level, the remotely operated vehicle Hercules explores the seafloor looking for hydrothermal fluid vents. Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust/Nautilus Live Download Full Image

Everett Shock of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and former ASU postdoctoral scholar Vincent Milesi worked with teams onboard the Ocean Exploration Trust’s (OET) Exploration Vessel Nautilus to use deep-sea exploration on Earth as an analog for hydrothermal systems on other ocean worlds.

In so doing, they designed and tested a new concept of operations that could help change the paradigm of planetary exploration. Their new approach is detailed in a recent article published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

Current scientific field exploration often involves a multiyear experimental cycle, starting with data and sample collection followed by analyses and modeling that then leads to findings that influence the design of subsequent experimental efforts.

But the ASU researchers exploring deep sea hydrothermal vents as part of the SUBSEA project moved their modeling to the beginning of this process, significantly speeding up their ability to interpret the data from months to a couple of hours.

Hydrothermal fluids produced at depth from the interactions of seawater with hot rocks vent out of chimneys made of mineral precipitates. Credit Ocean Exploration Trust/Nautilus Live

The novelty of their approach is to use programming languages to automate the multiple runs and data processing of geochemical calculations in order to analyze a large range of possible reaction conditions that generate vent fluids before and during their deep-sea investigations.

“The strength of this approach is that it makes it possible to be surprised when the predictions of the model are confirmed or disproved during exploration” said Milesi, lead author. “On cruise missions, on-board ship analyses can now be interpreted with the modeling as the expedition proceeds, rather than having to wait months for the analytical results to come back from the lab and then start the modeling effort.”

The team tested their new procedure during the exploration of the “Sea Cliff” hydrothermal vent field on the Gorda Ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean. They began by conducting a series of reaction-path calculations before the expedition to predict the diversity of possible fluid chemical compositions and energy available for microorganisms at the vent site.

Then, during the expedition, ship-based chemical analyses of collected vent samples were sent to a shore-based team of geochemical modelers, who compared the measured and forward-modeled data to determine the reaction conditions at the origin of the vent fluids at depth.

A model of the new exploration paradigm developed during the 2019 SUBSEA expedition to the Gorda Ridge. During the expedition, the results of on-board ship analyses of hydrothermal vent fluid samples were sent to the land-based team at the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island to be compared with the results of geochemical modeling. The outcomes were then used to inform the design of the dive plan. Credit: Milesi et al.

These comparisons then informed, in real time, the design of the dive and sampling plans during the expedition, as well as providing a guide for future expeditions. Rapid hypothesis testing also freed up time for further exploration resulting in the discovery of a nearby hydrothermal vent field named Apollo by the SUBSEA group in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by astronauts.

“Geochemical modeling used to be what you did once you had all your data, but no more,” said Shock, study co-author.

And this new approach to the scientific process is particularly important to the field of astrobiology. In the search for life on other planets, scientists are looking to gain an understanding of what kind of water-rock interactions occur on icy moons (like Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons) and whether they support microbial life. To answer that question, scientists have to optimize their exploration and sampling strategy to learn the most about the habitability of these extreme environments.

The SUBSEA team exploring seafloor hydrothermal vent fields as analogs of ocean worlds. Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust/Nautilus Live

“It would be unfortunate to realize years after a mission was complete that a sample collected just a few meters farther away or with a slightly higher temperature would have had much more to tell than the fluid that was sampled,” Milesi said. “Our new process of analysis as the expedition proceeds is particularly critical for space exploration, where costs are high and time is of the essence.”

Deep-sea research as analog for deep space

Ocean and space research have a lot in common. In both fields, robotic explorers are sent to work where humans cannot easily go, with input from groups of people both relatively nearby and much farther afield. Combining the two worlds allows the SUBSEA team, led by Darlene Lim of NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley, to help prepare for new types of space exploration missions by practicing now under realistic conditions on Earth.

The SUBSEA team has been conducting scientific investigations to help NASA better understand the potential that other ocean worlds could have to support life, while also studying the oceanographic exploration process as a way to understand how to conduct remote science missions and to streamline future exploration.

The team was able to leverage ship-to-shore telepresence technologies developed over the past decade by OET and augmented by NASA technologies for this expedition to expand the size of the science team to a multidisciplinary team of researchers on shore. The work conducted by the SUBSEA team has direct implications for near-term human exploration destinations like the moon and Mars.

SUBSEA is funded by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Additional co-authors and contributors of this study include Tucker Ely of ASU, Megan Lubetkin of the Ocean Exploration Trust, Sean Sylva, Julie Huber, Amy Smith, Christopher German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Shannon Kobs Nawotniak of Idaho State University, Zara Mirmalek of Harvard and the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute, and Darlene Lim of NASA Ames Research Center.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Experiential lab customizes technology for community impact

March 24, 2021

Among the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, The Polytechnic School is known for its hands-on curriculum and strong network with the local industry. These strengths have proven valuable for all involved and therefore continue to take priority at the school. The Social Innovation Startup Lab, or SISL, carries that torch forward by connecting students with industry and engaging in philanthropic efforts to bring innovation to communities in need.

Established in 2019, the Social Innovation Startup Lab aims to connect students with industry to benefit the community through the responsible use of new and existing technologies. As a technological entrepreneurship and management program, the lab blends entrepreneurship, innovation and the strategic management of technology in a hands-on and experiential environment. people gathered around a table for a Social Innovation Startup Lab meeting Social Innovation Startup Lab students collaborating with industry partners and community leaders during the spring 2020 semester at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. All photos in this article are archival images taken before the current pandemic social distancing and face-covering requirements went into effect. Photo courtesy of Andrea Cherman Download Full Image

Technology entrepreneurship and management alumnus and Intel manager Christopher Ross and faculty adviser and technological entrepreneurship and management Lecturer Andrea Cherman developed the lab with the common goal of exposing students to real-world practices and promoting sustainability initiatives within industry while benefiting the local community in the process.

“Our mission is to focus and strengthen university, industry and community partnerships,” Cherman said. “We want to engage and connect companies, employees, faculty, students and communities in a meaningful experience while developing purposefully driven startups that provide responsible technological solutions to the community and nonprofit sectors.”

The Social Innovation Startup Lab is collaborating with the Intel Corporation and the Boeing Company this semester with the goal of engaging with local nonprofits to provide technology solutions for COVID-19 relief. Five teams, each made up of three third-and fourth-year students and three industry professionals, are working with communities across the state on the following initiatives:

  • Impacting children’s literacy in collaboration with Vello.
  • Exposing teens to STEM education in collaboration with SolarGoKarts.
  • Prevention of teen suicide in collaboration with Mesa United Way’s Younited Teen Advisory Council.
  • Impacting homelessness in collaboration with Mesa United Way.
  • Generating water conservancy solutions in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy.

Developing their solutions under the COVID-19 theme, teams are focusing their energy on security when delivering services, faster interactions and responses and how to do more with less.

Fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management student Blake Lescoe is on the Mesa United Way team. He says they are creating a system that consolidates and streamlines various resources available to homeless members of the community through one convenient tool.

“COVID-19 has caused homelessness to increase drastically, so we investigated methods to alleviate this rise,” Lescoe said. “We identified all of the programs currently offered to the homeless community and determined that resources are scattered throughout Mesa and not easily accessible. Tackling this need was quite overwhelming at first, but we have narrowed our focus to a problem that we feel, if addressed, could leverage the most change.”

Lescoe says that his team gets incredible value from Boeing and Intel professionals who bring their industry experience into the social innovation space. “I have been challenged to think differently about how I approach solving problems in our communities,” Lescoe said.

Derek Waite, a procurement agent for Boeing, sees firsthand how the Social Innovation Startup Lab is challenging students and values the opportunity to generate change in the community.

“SISL gives students the space to take things that they have learned and really apply them to make an impact,” Waite said. “Integrating the nonprofits and the corporate sponsors allows for innovative thinking and collaboration that will push these students to not only see this as a course but a chance to make a difference.”

Harmony Nelson, the director of community impact for Mesa United Way, has worked with the lab for the past two years and appreciates the opportunity to bring community issues to the forefront.

“The greater community often may not be aware of the problems facing our own friends and neighbors,” Nelson said. “Students in this program have always listened intently and kept an open mind for the clients being served and the programs working to help them.”

During the course of a semester, the teams meet weekly at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. They use Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, computer vision, drones and other technologies to conceptualize feasible solutions to community challenges. From developing a business model to designing, prototyping, pitching and iterating practice, students are immersed in an experiential learning environment in addition to their routine coursework.

“I am familiar with the corporate environment and I own two companies,” said fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management online student Sonya Flaherty. “One is a long-standing theatrical production company and another is a startup. I mention this only to point out that I have had my share of successes, failures, heartaches and lessons learned, and even with my experience, I find myself learning and growing with each week in SISL.”

In addition to working side by side with industry professionals, students are able to participate in lectures and discussions about technological entrepreneurship and social innovation led by technology entrepreneurship and management faculty, tech industry and community experts.

“We are pioneering groundbreaking social innovation methodologies at the intersection of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, social impact, emerging technologies, community engagement, industrial expertise and academic innovation,” said Intel’s Ross.

Cherman touts the program’s ability to bring entrepreneurship, technology and sustainability solutions together for a common goal.

“Firms are also able to attract top students and demonstrate sustainability initiatives within their companies,” she said. “Employees are exposed to new challenges and perspectives and gain awareness of the ethical use of technology. In addition, the community has the opportunity to work with a qualified and eager team of students and professionals who are ready to tackle their needs.”

To learn more about the Social Innovation Startup Lab, to become involved as an industry partner or to sponsor its students, please contact Jennifer Williams or call 480-727-1688.

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Sr communications specialist, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts