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Oases for Life on the Mid-Cayman Rise

Hydrothermal Exploration using Advanced Underwater Robotics

Follow a renowned team of oceanographers and astrobiologists exploring one of the deepest points in the Caribbean Sea and searching for life in extreme seafloor environments. Using the new hybrid underwater robotic vehicle Nereus, these scientists will extend their investigations beyond the reach of other research submersibles to the bottom of the Mid-Cayman Rise, whose maximum depth is just over 6,800 meters (4.2 miles) deep.

The study area, also known as the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, is one of Earth’s deepest and slowest-spreading mid-ocean ridges—regions where two of Earth’s tectonic plates are ripped apart and new material wells up from the Earth’s interior. There, scientists will search for hydrothermal vent systems—natural, seafloor plumbing systems where cold seawater circulates down into the hot, freshly-formed oceanic crust releasing heat and mineral-rich fluids at the seafloor that support complex ecosystems of exotic organisms.

By exploring this extreme and previously uninvestigated section of the Earth’s deep seafloor, this research seeks to extend our understanding of the limits (in terms of extreme environments) to which life can exist on Earth and to help prepare for future efforts to explore for life on other planets.

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Last updated: January 19, 2010