James Cameron dived to the bottom of the ocean back in March in a submersible loaded with monitoring equipment, promising real-life footage of underwater aliens that could help shed light on how human beings came to be. Never one to disappoint, the sci-fi film director is beginning to unveil bits of his findings.
At a gathering of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on December 4, Cameron gave a sneak preview -- more of a teaser, actually -- of his deep-sea observations. He believes they provide insights into the origins of life not only on Earth but also on Mars and other planets as well.
"We did end up with some amazing science results from this project," Cameron said.
Cameron packed himself inside a small one-man submersible called Deepsea Challenger back in March and plunged 35,803 feet down into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean, located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles east of the Philippines. That dive technically gave him claim to the deepest human dive on record; however, he said he'd split the title with a U.S. Navy lieutenant who took the plunge into the trench in 1960 because the lieutenant's depth gauges weren't as advanced as the ones on Cameron's rig.
To prep for the several dives he took inside the small submersible, Cameron said he practiced yoga for six months in advance. During the dives, he reported trapping various deep-sea specimens and bottom feeders for later examination. One of his dives, to an area called the Sirena Deep, rendered some insightful results, including a look at how life could subsist in the deep, harsh depths.
Researchers observed that certain rock outcroppings in the far deep were host to "mats" of microbes, which somehow have found enough energy to survive on. Researchers hypothesize that rocks from the Earth's mantle are being primed to support life by a process called serpentinization. Basically, the sea water and mantle rocks react, producing methane and hydrogen energy that could sustain the microbial mats Cameron's submersible recorded.
Cameron and researchers discuss their results.
Researchers suspect that this transformation is what bridges "geochemistry and biochemistry," said NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand. In other words, Cameron's deep sea footage supports certain theories explaining the jump from rocks to life that gave birth to the first cells on Earth.
To put this in perspective, the presence of methane in Mars' atmosphere has some scientists stoked on the possibility of life on the Red Planet because it might be an outgrowth of serpentinization. Cameron said at the geophysics gathering that he's thinking about getting involved in the next Mars mission, which NASA recently announced is set for 2020.
It wouldn't be the first time the film director/explorer/inventor lent a hand in NASA's work; he helped develop a special camera magnification system for Curiosity. NASA wound up removing them and replacing them before launch, but now that Cameron has helped find evidence of environments that could support early life, perhaps it's time the agency gave him another swing.