Black smoker hydrothermal vent
Sea worms make their home near a black smoker hydrothermal vent. At a sensor workshop earlier this year, space scientists and ocean scientists worked to build a collaborative framework to benefit from commonalities between studying life in extreme environments on Earth and searching for life on other worlds. Credit: MARUM, University of Bremen

Space and ocean science share a common interest in investigating the conditions under which life can develop and proliferate. According to Peter Willis of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Research Council, our best chance of finding life on other planets is by exploring ocean worlds because they provide the necessary conditions for life forms as we know them.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA are currently developing exploration missions to ocean worlds in the outer solar system, focusing on Europa and Ganymede in particular. Methods and observing strategies can advance these targeted missions, as they do for missions in deep-sea science; a joint effort is therefore favorable.

One such effort, sponsored by the Helmholtz Alliance, is the Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments (ROBEX) alliance, which brings together space and deep-sea researchers. Joint effort was the common thread of the ROBEX workshop held during this year’s European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

Prospecting for life-supporting conditions and finding indicators of biological activity have led to the concept of habitability.

The 20 attendees of this workshop came from within the disciplines of space (German Aerospace Agency, ESA) and deep-sea research (Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, Harvard University). Discussions began in the field of astrobiology, where prospecting for life-supporting conditions and finding indicators of biological activity have led to the concept of habitability—a measure of a planet’s or its natural satellite’s potential to develop and sustain life.

Most life forms that are relevant to studying habitability on other planets (which is extrapolated from conditions found on Earth) are expected in some environments that are similar to ones found in the deep sea (e.g., hot vent systems). Deep-seafloor surface sediments are of particular interest because both pelagic and sediment species aggregate there, providing a better chance of detecting material of organic origin.

Observing extreme environments presents similar technological challenges to ocean researchers and space researchers.

Observing extreme environments presents similar technological challenges to ocean researchers and space researchers, and this is the source of the synergy addressed at the meeting between space and ocean initiatives within the ROBEX alliance. For example, deep-sea microbes live in toxic, near-boiling water at hydrothermal vents near methane seeps and survive at pressures 400 times that of Earth’s atmosphere. Similar organisms may be found in these types of environments on other planets.

With future collaboration in mind for ocean and space exploration activities, the consensus of the ROBEX attendees focused on the following:

  • innovative sensing methods for targeted acquisition of environmental parameters
  • in situ sample processing and analysis to enable long-term and adaptive sampling
  • integrated, multidisciplinary sampling systems, including interoperability of data formats and access mechanisms
  • reusable systems to extend the spatial and temporal scales of sampling
  • methods and instruments enabling samples to be returned to Earth
  • common iterative technical design processes for space and terrestrial science, to match reliability standards
  • a best practice framework for promoting interoperability across disciplines and fields of research and exploration

Attendees recognized that the organization of dedicated workshops and demonstration campaigns will help to develop a healthy framework for future collaboration. For example, a workshop organized at ESA facilities, planned for the near future, will bring together representatives from governmental space agencies as well as from private-sector space exploration companies to develop a strategy on how to best make use of the synergies that were identified at the ROBEX workshop. Workshop participants agreed that joint solicitations—open to both ocean and space technologies—appear most promising to fully exploit the true potential of this collaboration.

—Christoph Waldmann (email:, Tina Dohna, and Allison Haefner, University of Bremen, Germany


Waldmann, C.,Dohna, T., and Haefner, A. (2017), Driving convergence in space and deep-sea science exploration, Eos, 98, Published on 06 November 2017.

Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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