AUSTIN, TexasScientists this week begin the final leg of a five-year, NASA-funded mission to reach the bottom of Cenote Zacatn in Mexico, the world's deepest known sinkhole.
No one has ever reached bottom and at least one diver has died in the attempt. Scientists want to learn more about Cenote Zacatn's physical dimensions, the geothermal vents that feed it and the forms of life that exist in its murky depths.
Previous expeditions tested the robotic probe that will make the dive. The Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer, known as DEPTHX, is a tangerine-shaped submarine designed to survey and explore for life in extreme regions on Earth and potentially in outer space.
During eight years of research at Zacatn, doctoral student Marcus Gary, who coordinates the DEPTHX mission, and hydrogeology professor Jack Sharp, both from The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, discovered the system's unusual hydrothermal nature is analogous to liquid oceans under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.
Technology developed to explore the sinkholes could be applied to future space probes of Europa, where scientists believe that deep cracks and holes in the ice offer a chance of finding extraterrestrial life.
The DEPTHX technology has also been approved for a new NASA mission to explore one of Antarctica's ice-bound polar lakes. Researchers believe ice-bound lakes hold clues to the origins of life on Earth.