October 1, 2005

Deep-Sea Expedition Lead From Land

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The ship with all the gadgets and underwater rovers was stationed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but for the first time, the scientists directing the expedition were not on board. They sat in rooms thousands of miles away.

The scientists and technicians, at universities in Rhode Island, Washington state and New Hampshire, watched 42-inch plasma television screens in awe as unmanned submersibles poked around the Lost City hydrothermal vents - a two football field- sized forest of limestone chimneys on the ocean floor.

Wearing headsets, the expedition's leaders stationed at the University of Washington told engineers on the ship where to send the robotic vehicles and its high-definition video cameras, and what to explore next.

"We're treated like the chief scientist on the ship that makes the decision about it. It's just that we're not there," said Deborah Kelley, a geology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and the expedition's co-leader.

Supporters said the trip, which ended Aug. 1, has broad implications for future exploration of the oceans, which cover about 70 percent of Earth but remain mostly unexplored. For one, it shows ships can stay out at sea for as many as eight months of the year, since the scientists no longer need to be on board.

"No scientist will sit on (a ship) for that long, reading a book and eating popcorn for the whole time, no way," said Robert Ballard, the founder of the Titanic who's credited with dreaming up the technology used on the Lost City expedition.

A combination of technology helped pull off the feat. The expedition used fiber-optic cables, satellite feeds, and a special, high-speed Internet connection to transmit images by the roving submersibles' lights and cameras at Lost City within 1.5 seconds - essentially live - to the three "control" rooms.

The images broadcast to the land-based scientists were stunning, said Jeffrey Karson, a geology professor at Duke University and the expedition's co-leader. Karson, who explored Lost City in dives in 2000 and 2003, said the two submersibles, one shining a bright light over a wide area and the other filming with a high definition camera, gave scientists a more panoramic view of the vent field.

"It was more like we could see the whole building, instead of just a room," Karson said.

Lost City is a series of hydrothermal vents located at a north-south underwater mountain chain called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which splits nearly the entire Atlantic Ocean. The site yields dramatic video because its limestone chimneys created by crystallized fluids can reach 200 feet in height.

Hydrothermal vents were first discovered by Ballard in 1977 near the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. Those fields, called black smokers due to the color of the fluids released, are located around underwater volcanoes. But Lost City, discovered five years ago and nowhere near any undersea volcanoes, showed that vents could be found elsewhere. It's still the only vents of its kind found so far.

Life is sustained there by the heat and gases emitted by the vents - a process that scientists believe is similar to what happened on Earth in its earliest days. That's one reason they explored and mapped the site in such detail.

The underwater probes operated around the clock, to maximize the amount of research on the trip. The scientists in Seattle worked in six-hour shifts to keep a constant lookout for any finds. Meanwhile, the probes collected samples of the unique colonies of microscopic organisms that live around the vents, fluids and gases emitted, and the chimneys themselves. The samples are important, because scientists are still learning how Lost City works.

"It has to do with this kind of life, this novel kind of life as far as we know on this planet," Karson said, "and it could be important in the history of life on this planet and perhaps on other planets."

The trip was broadcast live four times a day at museums, science centers and aquariums, in schools, and at Boys and Girls Clubs nationwide. As examples, people watched the video at Pier Wisconsin in Milwaukee and at the Herrett Center for Arts and Science at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, Idaho. More than 2,000 4th and 5th graders at a dozen schools in the Clark County school district in Nevada tuned in. And, 16 students from Page Middle School in Madison Heights, Mich., shelved part of their summer break to watch and discuss the expedition through Ballard's program called Immersion Presents.

Some came away with their imaginations aroused, said Dale Steen, director of technology for the Lamphere School District, which serves Madison Heights.

"A couple of parents on the side said, 'You know what, my kid is so interested in underwater ROVS that they're building it with Legos,'" Steen said.


On the Net:

Lost City expedition: http://www.immersionpresents.org