Alien Life in Hawaii? Astrobiologists Are Going to the Islands to Learn About Hunting Extraterrestrials on Enceladus

These days on Hawaii's Big Island, there's plenty going on above the surface to keep a host of scientists occupied, due to Kilauea's month-long and sometimes rapidly changing eruption. But soon, there will be a few more scientists focused on the island—although they'll be looking to understand a much more alien phenomenon than lava.

NASA scientists are spending research seasons this year and next piloting a submersible vessel off the coast of the Big Island to explore Lo'ihi, the still-underwater volcano that will thousands of years from now become the newest island in the Hawaiian chain.

They hope the life they find there will help them learn what to look for in a similar but much less accessible environment—like that trapped under the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus. It's one of astrobiologists' most intriguing candidates for finding life beyond Earth.

Although scientists studied the moon in a fair amount of detail with the Cassini mission that ended last fall, it will be quite a while before they'll get another chance to look at Enceladus up close.

Saturn's moon Enceladus is covered by an icy shell that hides a global ocean that could hold life. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The soonest such a mission could launch is the mid 2020s, and that doesn't even include travel time. It's a long time to sit around dreaming of distant microbiology.

So in the meantime, scientists are headed to Hawaii with a NASA project called Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog or SUBSEA. The project will let the scientists send a robotic drone to explore hot springs bubbling up about 3,000 feet below the ocean's surface.

In particular, they want to better understand temperature and pressure conditions found around these springs. They'll also look at which microbes are present and how they come together to build communities.

The project has a second goal as well: to help scientists practice working far away from their experiments, as they do with robots working on the Moon and Mars. So next year, to spice things up a little, NASA will artificially lag communication to and from the submersible while it works at a second destination.

That way, when a real Enceladus mission comes along, scientists will be ready to tackle whatever mysteries the moon throws at them.