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Prototype space probe prepares to explore Earth's deepest sinkhole

AUSTIN, Texas -- Scientists return this week to the worlds deepest known sinkhole, Cenote Zacatn in Mexico, to resume tests of a NASA-funded robot called DEPTHX, designed to survey and explore for life in one of Earths most extreme regions and potentially in outer space.

If all goes well with this second round of testing and exploration, the team will return in May for a full-scale exploration of the Zacatn system.

Sinking more than 1,000 feet, Zacatn has only been partially mapped and its true depth remains unknown.

During eight years of research, doctoral student Marcus Gary and hydrogeology professor Jack Sharp from The University of Texas at Austins Jackson School of Geosciences, discovered the systems unusual hydrothermal nature is analogous to liquid oceans under the icy surface of Jupiters 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 technology could also be used to explore Earths ice-bound polar lakes, which hold clues to the origins of life on Earth.

Microbes which appear to be new to science have been discovered floating in deep water and lining rocks in Zacatn. Far below sunlights ability to penetrate, they may get their energy from nutrients welling up from hot springs. Gary and others speculate that previously undocumented life may await discovery in the murky depths.

William Stone of Stone Aerospace in Del Valle, Texas, heads the exploration project, named DEPTHX after the robot, a deep phreatic thermal explorer that NASA funded with $5 million. In addition to the geoscientists from The University of Texas at Austin, collaborators include robotics experts, engineers, geobiologists and geochemists from Carnegie Mellon University, Colorado School of Mines and Southwest Research Institute.

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Contact: J.B. Bird
jb.bird@mail.utexas.edu
512-232-9623
University of Texas at Austin
7-Mar-2007


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