It's tempting to believe that by this time, we've thoroughly explored even the most remote place on the planet. Heck, we've probably even erected a KFC there. But consider this: according to a recent estimate, Earth could be home to ONE TRILLION species, and we've only discovered one thousandth of one percent of them. If this number's even the teensiest bit accurate, where are they all these organisms hiding out?
A significant number of them could be going about their business in the Mariana Trench, sometimes referred to as the Marianas Trench because the nearby string of islands it's named for are also called Las Marianas. Located in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines the trench plummets to 36,037 feet (10,984 meters) below sea level at maximum depth, which is deeper than Mt. Everest is high, deeper than the cruising altitude of most commercial airplanes. Considerably more people have been to space than have explored the Mariana Trench.
This spring, a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched a 3-month investigation into what's living down in the deepest hole on the planet. Much of the Trench is protected by the U.S. government as part of the the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, though the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Trench, does not fall under U.S. control.
Using the Okeanos Explorer, a repurposed Navy surveillance vessel, NOAA is sending down three different exploratory vessels — the first launched in April, and the last will go down in July 2016.
"Despite decades of previous work in the region, much of the Monument and surrounding areas remain unexplored," the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research said in a press release announcing the expedition. "In the coming months, we expect to explore bottomfish habitats, new hydrothermal vent sponge communities, and seamounts, as well as subduction zone and trench areas."
Past expeditions have revealed some really amazing creatures, so there's sure to be some really interesting discoveries coming up. In the live video feed of the first leg of the expedition, some giddy researchers enthusiastically chatted their way through the discovery of new species each day: deep-sea corals, sea cucumbers, anemones, sponges, squid, glowing jellyfish, and some fish that swim upside down for some unknown reason. They are also studying the trench's geology, so some footage of hydrothermal vents, mud volcanoes, and seamounts might even be in your future. Here's a video of a beautiful jellyfish discovered on the fourth day of the expedition:
Data collected on this expedition will help researchers understand deep-ocean habitats. You can watch the exploration via the team's live video feed when the second leg of the expedition starts exploring the northern end of the trench Friday, May 20. Check back with HowStuffWorks Now for updates on the sure-to-be-cool discoveries. Here are a few images of what's been seen so far: