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Undersea Observatory Planned

December 01, 2005

Imagine trying to understand the weather by looking out your window once a week. That gives you an idea of what doing research about the ocean is like, according to one scientist. Limited to short trips on research boats, scientists wind up with piecemeal data that make it hard to sort out cause and effect. And the underwater instruments they use simply lack the power and bandwidth to deliver more than spotty science.

But Canadian and U.S. scientists think they can remedy the problem with round-the-clock data delivered every day from scientific instruments on the sea floor, if they wire the deep with an optical-fiber data network and high-voltage power grid. This unprecedented engineering project is called the North-East Pacific Time Series Undersea Networked Experiments, or NEPTUNE. Through it scientists and engineers aim to bring the power of the Internet to the ocean floor. “In a sense it would be as if dozens of spots on the sea floor had Internet ports and power outlets,” writes Peter Fairley in the November issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine.

By 2007, NEPTUNE planners hope to have laid down an optical fiber and power cable from Vancouver Island, in Canada, that stretches several hundred kilometers out into the ocean. Attached to the cable will be clusters of power and communications hubs to which instruments such as hydrophones, current sensors, high-definition video cameras, and even robotic crawlers can be attached.

The instruments will give unexampled access to some of the world’s most bizarre seascapes. One set of them will study Endeavor Ridge, where superheated seawater erupts from rock chimneys and feeds a jungle of strange life forms, including the most heat-tolerant microbe in the world.

The project is still being engineered, and the budget is tighter than ever. Funding from the United States has yet to materialize, so the Canadian scientists must start building NEPTUNE alone, as a smaller project than originally conceived. But the enterprise’s proponents say that even in its scaled-down form, NEPTUNE will be a revolution in ocean science.

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