Exploring Extraterrestrial Oceans Here on Earth

March 12, 2015 - anthropology / astro anthropology / astronomy / cartography / exoanthropology / mapping / NASA / SETI / space / space studies / STS

NASA has announced that observations from the Hubble telescope suggest there is a vast underground ocean on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is also the largest moon in our solar system:

“Scientists estimate the ocean is 60 miles (100 kilometers) thick – 10 times deeper than Earth’s oceans – and is buried under a 95-mile (150-kilometer) crust of mostly ice.”

Space scientists are finding water everywhere in our solar system and exploring the oceans of Ganymede and Europa will require a collaboration between deep ocean, arctic, and space technology. That work begins here on earth.


Illustration of the interior of Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

In preparation for these missions, scientists work at “planetary analogue” sites around the world where they develop tools and methods to search for life on other planets. Space scientists call these locales planetary analogue research sites because they serve as a stand-in, or analogue, for another world. Analogue research sites are locations on Earth that approximate the geological, environmental, or biological conditions of sites on other planets (Osinksi et al. 2006). One “Catalogue of Planetary Analogues” identifies over 30 analogue research sites on Earth – many in Canada (Preston et al. 2012). Preparatory field research performed on Earth is an often-overlooked but fundamental aspect of space exploration. It is also one of my research areas in the anthropology of space. As I look at the following examples of analogue and Earth based science that might be applied to space, I always wonder: How do we use sites here on Earth to prepare for studying space? How do we imagine them and the sites they stand in for?

The NEEMO program (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations), currently works underwater at the Aquarius Reef Base, which is the only undersea laboratory in the world dedicated to science and education. As NASA, CSA, and ESA continue exploration of our solar system and begin to look at underground and under-ice oceans, deep sea and cold ocean technology and science going on here on Earth will continue to be important sources of experience and innovation for the space science and exploration programs.

Aquarius Reef Base

Image: Aquarius Reef Base NEEMO 18 -27

Aquarius serves the NEEMO program as an analogue for space, and other analogue projects have also looked at, and worked on underwater exploration. Another example is the CSA/NASA Pavilion Lake Research Project in British Columbia, Canada. At Pavilion Lake researchers tested vehicles and conducted scientific investigations which also served as analogues for exploration of extraterrestrial oceans:

“Beneath the surface of Pavilion Lake are fascinating carbonate rock structures with diverse sizes and morphology. The structures, called microbialites, are similar to stromatolites, and are rare on today’s earth. These structures are believed to be formed, in whole or in part, by microorganisms. The microorganisms that live on the structures are single celled bacteria and algae, and are common inhabitants of aquatic environments. These types microbialites were very common for about two billion years of earth’s early history. The microbialites in Pavilion Lake provide an analog for the biogeochemical processes active on early Earth and potentially on other planets such as Mars. The Pavilion Lake Research Project was founded to characterize the morphogenesis (formation) and preservation potential of the microbialites in Pavilion Lake.”

Pavilion Lake

Pavilion Lake DW AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) on microbialites.

What might we find in these oceans of Jupiter’s moons? Exploration here on Earth has uncovered ecosystems below arctic sea ice using technology like the Nereid Under Ice (NUI). Perhaps we would find similar microbial communities, or plant-like life? What do you imagine is under the sea on another world? This kind of question is central to the field of astrobiology – informed speculation based on science and imagination. And also based on what we see here, on Earth, in the places most like those on Jupiter’s moons.


Nereid Under Ice two-body system deployment from the Polarstern during August 2014 sea trials. (Chris German, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

In an expedition to the Ross Ice Shelf, Northern Illinois University geology professor Reed Scherer sent a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) down a borehole in the ice and discovered fish, hundreds of meters below the ice. This discovery was made using the Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging (SCINI). Additional work has discovered lakes under the antarctic ice shelf which are full of thriving microbial life. You can imagine how useful these devices and experiences might be when designing a probe to explore the oceans under the ice on another world.

Scientists working here on Earth are doing this preparatory work that enables us to think about how we might explore underground and under-ice oceans on other worlds. And if we are lucky enough to find life like Earth’s Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) living in these oceans, the work of researchers like Denise Herzing of the Wild Dolphin Project might enable us to communicate with them.

Europa Clipper

Proposed Europa Clipper Mission (NASA/JPL)

One of the first steps in expanding this analogue and other scientific work from Earth’s oceans to the rest of our solar system might be the proposed Europa Clipper mission:

“The Europa Clipper is a concept under study by NASA that would conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa and would investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.”

Meanwhile, work on how we might explore Europa’s surface has already started here on Earth. In just one example, a glacier on Ellesmere Island in Arctic Canada may be the most Europa-like place on Earth with its sulphuric springs and frozen landscape. Research at this glacier may tell us something about how life could live in the ice of Europa, or under it in the oceans, and how it might make use of the sulphur that we see in both locations.

Ellesmere Island glacier

Ellesmere Island glacier, Arctic Canada (Stephen Grasby/Natural Resources Canada)

In my work as an anthropologist I’m interested in the science, the exploration, but also the social science of these sites and projects. My research asks questions like: How do scientists think about these analogue sites and the otherworldly places they stand in for? How are researcher’s ideas about possible extraterrestrial life shaped by studying life in extreme environments on Earth, like undersea vents and arctic islands? How do speculative fiction and sci-fi books, films, and other media shape this kind of analogue space science? How do researchers interact with local environments and residents, and how do local communities experience these so-called “alien” and “extreme” landscapes? What roles do imagination and play have in scientists’ enactments of everyday life and work while they live as if they are on another world?

Developing the tools, methods, and theory of the anthropology space may help to understand not only how we are exploring space, but how we think about and understand our own planet by looking at the research projects conducted here on Earth with an eye toward space. This kind of thinking about how we do something and what we bring to it, this is just one of the benefits of social science for space science.



Osinski, Gordon R., Richard Léveillé, Alain Berinstain, Martin Lebeuf, and Matthew Bamsey
2006 Terrestrial Analogues to Mars and the Moon: Canada’s Role. Geoscience Canada 33(4): 175–188.

Preston, Louisa J., Simeon J. Barber, and Monica M. Grady
2012 Introducing a New on-Line Resource for Planning Scientific Field Investigations in Planetary Analogue
Environments: CAFE. In Astrobiology Science Conference 2012: Exploring Life: Past, Present, Near and Far, April 16th – 20th. Atlanta, Georgia, USA.