Astronomy news are often about newly discovered galaxies or previously undetected planets. But there are places never seen before right here on Earth too, which may seem like extraterrestrial environments.
On Friday, a team of Irish and British scientists announced the discovery of a previously unknown system of deep-sea hydrothermal vents along the volcanic Mid-Atlantic Ridge — a boundary of tectonic plates that crosses the Atlantic Ocean. The vent field was discovered a few hundred kilometers north of the Portuguese islands of Azores, and has tall chimneys of metals and minerals that are home to alien-like lifeforms.
Researches watched vivid-orange shrimp-like creatures,
that are believed to see in the infrared through a third eye which detect light through a sheet of retinal cells on their backs, crawling around the chimneys. “Elsewhere there are writhing scale-worms, swirling mats of bacteria and eel-like fish — a riot of life in this unlikely haven on the ocean floor,” stated team member Jon Copley, from the University of Southampton, in a press release. (See Jon’s comment below for more information on the strange shrimps!)
“It is too early to say whether some of them are new species or not but we are confident that at least three will prove to be,” said mission leader Andy Wheeler, from University College Cork, to the Irish Examiner.
Hydrothermal vents are cracks in the Earth’s crust from where seawater heated to boiling point by subterranean volcanic activity is spewed. This water is enriched with minerals from the molten rock, which can precipitate and eventually form roughly cylindrical chimneys resembling miniature underwater volcanos. These structures are home to an ecosystem that, in complete darkness, relies on the vent field as its primary source of energy. The rich marine life in the vents thrives on bacteria that transform chemicals in the heated water into organic material.
The vents now found are at depths of 3000 metres, and the system is the first to be explored on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores. The team spent 23 days on board of the Irish research vessel Celtic Explorer, and used the remotely operated vehicle Holland 1 to find the field.
Researches named the newly charted system Moytirra, meaning ‘Plain of the Pillars,’ after a battlefield in Irish mythology. “The largest chimney we have found is huge — more than ten metres tall — and we have named it ‘Balor’ after a legendary giant,” Patrick Collins from the University of Galway in Ireland said in a press release. “In comparison with other vent fields, Moytirra contains some monstrous chimneys and is in an unusual setting at the bottom of a cliff — a real beauty.”
Aside from researchers and technicians, the mission carried a TV crew from National Geographic. They filmed the discovery to include in an upcoming series called ‘Alien Deep,’ which will premiere in 2012 in the National Geographic Channel.