January 12, 2014 Slideshow

As hot fluid from hydrothermal vents hits the cold water at the bottom of the ocean, minerals dissolved in precipitate out as solids. Over months and years, the minerals gradually build up to form tall columns, or chimneys. Huge numbers of microbes live within the rocky walls and on the outside surface of the chimneys. The inside of a chimney is too hot, even for the hardiest of bacteria. The scientists on this cruise want to take samples of chimneys to study those microbes—but grabbing them with Jason’s robotic “hands” isn’t always easy, as the structures tend to disintegrate when touched.

In order to test how bacteria initially settle down and reproduce at vent sites, Costa Vetriani and his team of scientists are placing this round instrument, called a “colonizer,” onto an area of warm vent fluid. Placing it precisely in the middle of that flow can be challenging.

Collecting live tubeworms requires a delicate touch. First, Jason’s pilots need to tap the worm, sending it down into its protective tube. Once it hides there, the vehicle’s manipulator arm can safely grab the tip of the tube without harming the worm inside. Take special note of the white flecks in the water nearby—these are actually created by microbes that live inside a vent directly under the worms. As the microbes “eat” hydrogen sulfide, a chemical in the vent fluid, they convert that compound into bits of pure sulfur that collect in the water and create a “snowblower” effect.

In this image, Jason is about to send a fully-loaded elevator back to the surface. When pulled, the yellow rope held by Jason’s manipulator arm will release a set of weights attached underneath the elevator’s platform. Then the elevator will float gently upward. 


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