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opinion | Gareth Cook

Space on Earth

Deep-sea exploration is the new frontier of creatures, cancer cures, and even insight into other planets

David Procter for the Boston Globe

AMERICA’S EXPLORING spirit seems to have subsided. The glory days of Apollo are long gone. The ambitious quest to determine whether Mars once contained life - or does so today - has fizzled in budget cuts. A nation that once dreamt of frontiers now prefers the couch and a good episode of “Dancing With The Stars.’’

A potential antidote came recently from the filmmaker James Cameron. After years of development, Cameron climbed aboard a bright green, technically innovative submarine and dropped to the bottom of the world. He piloted his craft seven miles straight down to the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep, the lowest place on earth. Cameron was the first person to ever make the dangerous trip solo, and he came back describing a haunting, desolate landscape, evocative of the moon.

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“I felt like I, literally in the space of one day, have gone to another planet and come back,’’ Cameron told reporters after he surfaced, brimming with enthusiasm.

Americans have pushed west to the Pacific. We have conquered the air, and made forays toward the stars. And now we should go deep. Below the waves is a world that is at least as mysterious and dangerous as space, a place where the mettle of adventurers can be tested. A more aggressive program of underwater exploration would reveal secrets about the origins of life, and the possibility of potential for life on alien worlds, as well as provide potential new drugs and help in understanding the planet’s swiftly changing climate and ecosystem.

“The discoveries that have yet to be made about the deep sea are as exciting as the discoveries we can make in outer space,’’ says Richard Lutz, a professor at Rutgers and leading expert on deep submarine exploration.

Certainly, ocean exploration is a mission that could capture the public’s imagination. Jules Verne understood this more than 100 years ago. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’’ features ice shelves, banks of coral, and of course, sea monsters.

Science has since provided glimpses of a place even more shocking than the products of Verne’s imagination. One of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last century was the identification, in 1977, of an entire biological community living near deep hydrothermal vents - life which, surprisingly, flourished without access to the sun’s light. In these places, giant red-tipped tube worms sway in the water; crabs and fish are bone white; shrimp scuttle by with eyes on their backs.

What makes these little oases possible are bizarre microorganisms that are able to live off the vents’ chemical energy, thriving despite the permanent night. Initial studies of the highly unusual compounds that appear in them have shown that some have anti-cancer properties, according to an article by Lutz and a colleague in this week’s Science. Yet almost nothing is known about this extreme life.

What Cameron did is remind the world how much we are missing. The research submarines already in use can travel to a depth of about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles), but there are 16 trenches that go deeper, up to about 11 kilometers (roughly 7 miles). These deepest places are known evocatively as the “Hadal zone,’’ as in Hades, the god of the underworld in Greek myth. The pressure is so enormous that Cameron’s submarine shrunk several inches on the way down.

We suffer from a land-centric view of Earth. Yes, some seven-tenths of the surface is ocean. But more than half the planet is ocean two or more miles deep. “If you ask what is the planet’s typical habitat, it is deep ocean,’’ says Chris German, the chief scientist for deep submergence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Some will argue that nothing we can do under the ocean will ever match the drama of Apollo. That may be correct; we are no longer locked in an existential duel with another superpower. Yet we will surely learn more by going underwater than we did by going to the moon.

And discoveries have a way of leading to other discoveries. At the hydrothermal vents, we learned that life can thrive without light. Now scientists are looking at Europa, a moon of Jupiter where it’s thought that similar conditions hold: liquid water, under beds of ice, with volcanic activity at the floor. There’s a decent chance the place is alive.

This could well be the signature scientific accomplishment of the next generation: a mission to Europa that combines space-faring and deep-ocean exploration. Nobody knows what we’ll find there. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas. This is his last weekly column for the Globe. He will write a monthly column beginning in June.
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