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Brit science vessel probes hot cleft for weird lifeforms

Glowing blue 'alien mats' found in Caribbean abyss

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British boffins aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook in the Caribbean say they have discovered the world's deepest known "black smoker" - a hot spring deep in the sunless oceanic abyss, home to bizarre organisms which may be brother to alien lifeforms on other worlds.

"Seeing the world's deepest black-smoker vents looming out of the darkness was awe-inspiring," says Jon Copley, a marine biologist at Blighty's National Oceanography Centre (NOC). "Superheated water was gushing out of their two-storey high mineral spires, more than three miles deep beneath the waves."

The existence of hot deep-sea springs has been known for decades, but so far most have been found at depths between one and two miles - not a patch on the new ones uncovered in recent days by the James Cook's crew of researchers at the bottom of the Cayman Trough, where depths and pressures are far more extreme.

Black smokers are interesting to biologists as they are home to strange, unique creatures whose ultimate energy source - unlike all other life on Earth - is not the sun. Rather, these denizens of the hot black abyss draw their power from the geological heat of the Earth itself, delivered to them via scalding water hot enough to melt lead.

Such conditions are thought to exist in various locations on extraterrestrial planets and moons of our own solar system, raising the possibility that similar hot-water, high-pressure alien lifeforms might live there.

"It was like wandering across the surface of another world," says geologist Bramley Murton of the NOC, describing the experience of piloting the HyBIS underwater vid-cam vehicle around the new abyssal volcanic vents for the first time. "The rainbow hues of the mineral spires and the fluorescent blues of the microbial mats covering them were like nothing I had ever seen before."

The vents were first located using the autonomous Autosub6000 robo-torpedo craft, which we have reported on in these pages before. Once the black smokers had been pinpointed by the Autosub, the HyBIS was sent down to get pics and other data.

Both the Autosub and the HyBIS are British developed.

"We are proud to show what British underwater technology can achieve in exploring this frontier," says Copley. "The UK subsea technology sector is worth £4 billion per year and employs 40,000 people, which puts it on a par with our space industry."

Perhaps not quite: the government last year assessed that UK space was a £7bn industry. Even so £4bn for Brit undersea is an impressive figure (mainstream car making is only £9.8bn, despite the vast amounts of government assistance lavished on it) and at least we at the Reg were already well aware that some of Blighty's submarine engineers are well up with the world leaders - even if others perform somewhat less impressively.

In any case, this the 44th mission of the James Cook is set to continue until the 24th of April, when the ship will put in to Trinidad. Until then, developments can be followed at the website "These are the voyages". ®

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