Lost City as a model for extraterrestrial rock-powered life

Live Science published a summary of William Brazelton’s presentation at the Astrobiology conference (AbSciCon) in June. The presentation is titled “Habitability of the Serpentinite Subsurface Viewed through the Windows of the Lost City”, and it is based on a forthcoming review by Susan Lang and Brazelton.

Live Science article: https://www.livescience.com/65824-lost-city-of-microbes-on-atlantis-massif.html

Tweets: https://twitter.com/wbrazelton/status/1144754652388286464

Presentation slides: https://figshare.com/articles/AbSciCon-2019-LostCity-habitability_pdf/8966372

Looking back: hurricanes and a determined science team

The photo above is a snapshot from Google Earth on September 12, close to the time that we were originally scheduled to begin seafloor operations at the Lost City. Because hurricanes Joyce and Helene were hovering over Lost City for a few days, blocking our access, we weren’t able to begin seafloor operations until September 16. Our first few days setting out from Woods Hole were also pretty rocky thanks to hurricane Florence. We also had some impressive swells even on clear days thanks to hurricane Isaac. There were some very sick people on the R/V Atlantis. (Thanks to Antony Adler for the Google Earth screenshot).

But everyone survived, as evidenced by the photo of smiling scientists below. After the hurricanes parted and our investigations at the Lost City began, this group of people became a highly efficient, interdisciplinary team of researchers.

For the six days of seafloor time we had during this expedition, the R/V Atlantis was humming 24 hours a day with an impressive array of scientific activities including but not limited to: sample processing and archiving, chemistry measurements, microbiology experiments,  sensor data collection, seafloor mapping, video editing, maintenance of a long list of instruments, and playing table tennis. Of course, all of this was done at the same time as operating ROV Jason on the seafloor. Sometimes people may have even slept a few hours.

Depths of Exploration

Typical starry night view from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Guest post by Osama Alian:

Nothing really prepares you for the scale that is the undertaking of an ocean expedition, or the feelings that may be inevitable for those who’ve admired the idea of exploration. Or at its simplest, traveling beyond the known. I can speak about the poetry of going to sea, the isolation of our study site, the camaraderie that is necessary to overcome longing for the loved ones on shore, the anxiety that comes with doing something new under trying circumstances. Those sentiments have been described countless times by thinkers and writers and scientists more articulate. However, I choose one very poignant moment to recall, that strikes me deep into a contemplation new to me.

The third night at the Lost City, like many other nights on this expedition, we shared the bow of the Atlantis with the stars. Between breaks of passing clouds and rain showers, a Milky Way of such brightness showed with one, strange and unfamiliar star moving across the sky. It wasn’t an airplane and it definitely wasn’t a shooting star. A few moments later we realized it was the International Space Station, with humans living and working aboard moving directly over us before it faded into its own, magnificent high-altitude sunset part way across the sky. Our brethren in exploration.

From the Earth to the Moon, the Apollo astronauts travelled four days at speeds unimagined beyond the power of Gods of myth. From Woods Hole, Massachusetts to the Lost City, we transited nearly nine days through hurricanes and tropical storms with barely a soul in sight. At our study site, Jason, our robot sub, descended to 800 meters below the sea, withstanding pressures of 1,200 pounds per square inch. The International Space Station, orbiting at 17,000 kilometers an hour is kept at an Earth-like 14 pounds per square inch.

From the Earth to beyond, we are a tribe of explorers, seeking. We do those things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

Arecibo Observatory

The Lost City represents more than an elusive scientific mystery to be teased apart. For us, for me, it’s the place that gives me a naïve assurance that this universe of ours is built on the strange and beautiful. We seek answers here to understand where life could be beyond our blue marble world. We strive to understand planetary phenomena here so that we may know our place in the universe and ensure a hope that maybe, just maybe between the vast emptiness we are truly not alone.

Our expedition concluded with arrival in Puerto Rico, but more poetically our final day before dispersing across our little world back to our academic homes was a visit to the Arecibo Radio Observatory. It was another strange but familiar moment, the scale of human ingenuity placed against the scale of an infinite universe, calling us. It may have seemed like an epilogue to our journey, but the reality of our work means that this is just the beginning. A prologue. From the depths of the ocean to the depths of space, how far will we reach into the unknown?

Osama Alian is a Ph.D. student in Matt Schrenk’s laboratory at Michigan State University. Twitter: @osamaalien. Instagram: osamaalien.

The ocean at night from the R/V Atlantis.