NOAA has begun construction on Okeanos, a deep-sea research vessel that promises to change oceanography forever.

From the APR/MAY 2006 issue of Seed:

The Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island is akin to a Johnson Space Center for ocean exploration. Personnel there will take in live data streams and high-definition video feeds from the Okeanos Explorer, relaying them via Internet2 to research teams assembled at NOAA centers across the country. Low-bandwidth versions of video feeds will also be available to researchers and educators anywhere via standard Internet. Credit: Dr. Robert D. Ballard

At Todd Pacific Shipyard in Seattle, workers have just begun cutting metal to convert a Cold War-era naval vessel, formerly assigned to anti-narcotics surveillance, into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) first vessel dedicated to exploration. Okeanos Explorer, a new class of ship poised to fundamentally alter the way deep-sea exploration is conducted, will be the culmination of the dreams of many an ocean scientist.

“This is going to revolutionize the way we all do ocean research and ocean science,” said Rear Admiral Samuel De Bow, who commands NOAA’s fleet of research vessels and aircraft.

In 1977, deep-sea explorers Richard von Herzon and Robert Ballard stumbled onto a teeming ecology of life on the seafloor of the Galápagos Rift. Without a biologist aboard their research vessel, Von Herzon, a geophysicist, and Ballard, a geologist, spent the ensuing few days frantically calling via ship-to-shore radio to communicate their discovery to biologists, all the while collecting specimens in bottles of scotch and vodka—makeshift preservatives, in the absence of formaldehyde.

Even so, says Ballard, “the discovery was a shot heard around the world, which has helped us to understand the origin of life on our planet.”

Thirty years later, 95% of the ocean floor remains unexplored, and nearly every expedition descending to the seafloor makes remarkable discoveries—new species, new discoveries in ecology, biology, geology and marine chemistry. But getting there is expensive, and a logistical nightmare. Only 12 to 25 researchers will fit aboard a single research vessel, and there aren’t very many ships to be had. Because of the prestige of the expeditions, competition for slots on these multidisciplinary teams is Olympian.

Bristling with state-of-the-art technology, Okeanos could usher in a new era of ocean exploration. Rather than mounting short research expeditions with small teams of scientists, Okeanos is being outfitted to spend 250 days a year at sea, staffed primarily by an as-yet undetermined number of technicians and NOAA officers.

The ship’s maiden voyage is scheduled for 2007. It will house two unmanned robot submersibles, capable of diving to 6,000 meters while carrying high-definition cameras and a mess of scientific equipment—putting somewhere between 90% and 97% of the ocean floor within reach. But the truly revolutionary part of the Okeanos is its telepresence system.

Along with data from advanced sonar equipment, all the images and information collected by the submersibles will be beamed by satellite to a $14-million mission control station, known as the Inner Space Center, started by Ballard at the University of Rhode Island. From there, they will be instantly available via the Internet to any researcher, anywhere in the world. Research teams will still be assembled, but they needn’t be aboard the ship. They will gather at a number of NOAA facilities equipped with monitors that mirror exactly the displays aboard ship. All the facilities, and the ship itself, will be linked live.

Never again will it be difficult to get an expert to the scene of a discovery. Thirty years after Ballard and von Herzon’s Galápagos expedition, NOAA is bringing online the ultimate ship-to-shore radio. Scientists no longer need compete for bunks aboard a research vessel.  Instead of one geologist or one ecologist, research teams can get 10 of each, tuning in from opposite ends of the country.

The system has been field tested over the last two years by NOAA, in conjunction with the Inner Space Center and the National Geographic Society. Video and satellite control centers housed in enormous trailers, euphemistically called “vans,” were lashed to the decks of science vessels equipped with research submersibles, establishing a live link to shore. Justin Manley, a consulting engineer helping NOAA to procure the submersibles for the Okeanos, piloted one of the submersibles for the 2004 archeological expedition to the Titanic.

“I could either talk to my colleagues on ship or we could talk to archeologists and scientists back on shore,” Manley said. “It was just a matter of clicking one switch or another switch. It’s seamless.” But even fastening half a semi-truck to the deck of a research vessel once a year can’t compare to the benefits of launching Okeanos, a ship with these systems built in and ready to broadcast at the push of a button.

When Okeanos is christened, scientists across the US and around the globe—along with the half-million children in Ballard’s Immersion Presents educational program—will be watching. “The concept has been demonstrated,” said Manley. “Now we’re turning it on and letting it loose.”

okeanosbp.jpg An additional advanced feature on the Okeanos is its dynamic positioning system. The thrusters surrounding the ship respond constantly to GPS input, allowing it to “hover” at a precise locationwithout drifting. The submersibles are similarly equipped with systems that allow them to determine their location and maintain it exactly, or execute programs requiring precision navigation.  Credit: Blueprint courtesy NOAA

Originally published April 10, 2006

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