Journey To The Center Of The Earth Planned
October 3, 2012

Have $1 Billion Will Travel…To The Center Of The Earth

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The Mars Curiosity rover is sending data and pictures to Earth from Mars every day with only a 14 minute delay, a monumental feat of human accomplishment. Yet, for all our research into the stars, there remains a great deal of discovery to be had here on Earth, particularly below the surface.

Now, a global team of drillers, geologists and other scientists and researchers plan to spend $1 billion to go the other way, deep into the Earth´s mantle.

Long a fixation of scientists and science fiction writers, the Earth´s Mantle and core have always remained unreachable by humans, due to a lack of technology, resources and proper tools. The technology and tools may still be lacking, but with plenty of help from the country of Japan, The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) team believes they´ll be able break into the mantle to collect samples and open up many new doors of discovery.

Landing the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars was a feat in and of itself, relying on a thousand different functions to operate properly and on time, not to mention the task of building the thing and getting it in the general vicinity of the red planet. The IODP faces similarly difficult challenges going the other way. According to one of the project´s co-leaders, Damon Teagle, this feat will be "the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science," reports CNN.

To put it delicately, Teagle explains the method by which he and his team will drill into the center of the Earth this way: "It will be the equivalent of dangling a steel string the width of a human hair in the deep end of a swimming pool and inserting it into a thimble 1/10 mm wide on the bottom, and then drilling a few meters into the foundations.”

In a radio interview with NPR, Teagle said the end-goal of this costly and risky mission is to understand how the Earth has evolved since its creation, as well as understand the chemical composition of the Earth´s mantle.

The team is eyeing one of three locations to begin their decent into the deep, each in the Pacific ocean. According to Teagle, this is the best location for drilling, as the crust is at its thinnest point here, roughly 6 kilometers, or 3.7 miles, and they´ll be doing all this drilling through a hole only 30 centimeters wide.

The team will have to drill through a layer of very hard, crystalline rocks in order to get the Earth´s mantle, placing a great deal of burden on the drill heads used in the mission. This is where modern technology could fail the team: As they are being used to drill through such hard material, the drill heads being used only have a lifespan of 50 to 60 hours, after which they will need to be replaced. This means the expedition will consist of many stops and starts as the team brings up the drill to replace the head every few days.

To get the equipment on location, the team is depending on a Japanese-built deep-sea drilling machine called Chikyu. Built in 2002, this vessel has already set the world record for boring the deepest hole into the ocean for scientific research and is capable of delivering the equipment as well as reaching at least 2.2 kilometers into the crust of the Earth.

Other attempts have been made to drill into the center of the Earth, of course. In 1960, Project Mohole saw a group of American scientists drill a few meters into the crust of the Earth before being shut down in 1966.

Now, the IODP needs only to raise the $1 billion necessary to complete this project, which means convincing countries and other donors that this trip is worth the expense and risk. Speaking to CNN, Teagle has said he´s so far been able to excite one group about his project: 15-year old students.

"I was giving a lecture to a group of 15-year-old high-school students recently and they [and their teachers] were fascinated by the technology and the thought that we could re-enter a hole just a few centimeters across with a drill string dangled from a ship in the open ocean 4 km above,” said Teagle.

If they are able to raise the appropriate funds to begin this research, Teagle hopes to start drilling by the end of the decade, which may make it possible for humans to reach the mantle by 2020.