An expedition to map and survey a little-known region of the Atlantic Ocean is underway this week. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partner groups are sending a two-piece remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on a series of deep-sea dives as part of a mission called “Voyage to the Ridge 2022.”
The ROV carries sensors and cameras, and records anything it finds on the seafloor along sections of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, one of largest geological features on earth. The best part: You can follow, watch the discovery happen in real time via a set of live broadcasts on the NOAA website.
The images so far, from the first of many planned dives, is already stunning, and more are to come. Today’s dive reached the seabed around 7 a.m. ET and ended just past 2 p.m. IIf all goes well, the current global shipping will continue through July 29, with dives streaming online daily from approximately 6:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET.
Then a follow-up expedition to a more southern section of the ridge has dives scheduled for August 7-28. narration and explanation of what is happening.
An uncharted frontier, closer to home
Earlier this month, the James Webb Space Telescope provided the highest resolution pictures of our universe never captured. The “final border” has become a little less blurry and a little more fleshed out. But closer to home, many mysteries remain. And somehow NOAA shipping might as well take place in a galaxy far, far away.
“Most of the deep sea is unexplored. Most of them aren’t even mapped at a reasonable resolution. It’s literally an unknown frontier on our own planet,” said a NOAA oceanographer. Derek Sowers in a video call with Gizmodo. “It deserves all the excitement and sharing of discoveries that space exploration would bring [prompt],” he added.
The sowers spoke to me from the expedition ship, called the Okeanos Explorer. For this leg of the mission, he will be at sea for 21 consecutive days as Expedition Coordinator and Voyage Director, along with the entire crew, collecting data and helping to shed light on the deep and dark seabed.
The ROV dives
In an earlier segment of the voyage, the ocean exploration team mapped a geological hotspot known as the Charlie-Gibbs fracture zone. They didn’t deploy any ROVs, instead they used a multibeam system under the ship to create a detailed map of the landscape. But even without the cameras, scientists still gleaned a new understanding of the area’s underlying geology, geography, and got a better picture of what kind of life the area might support, Sowers said.
Still, he explained that ROV dives are a particularly exciting opportunity and aspect of the mission. “Each of these ROV dives is basically a very small window into the ecosystem of the seafloor,” Sowers said, and the deep ocean contains “a huge treasure trove of unknowns.”
The two-body ROV system is controlled by pilots from a control room aboard the ship. The command center is full of large monitors displaying all the camera views and data from the many sensors of the ROVs. The rover is maneuvered via “a series of very high-end joysticks,” Sowers said. Pilots can also use a remote-controlled manipulator arm to reach out and collect samples to bring to the surface.
Today’s first dive focused on a large underwater mountain called a seamount. The ROV started at a depth of about 850 meters (2,789 feet) and headed upward, capturing images of corals, sponges, fish, starfish, molluscs and more along the way. “We are all climbing this mountain together. We are the first humans to see this,” said Scott France, a marine biologist at the University of Louisiana, while narrating the livestream. “So it’s quite special,” he added. “No one has been here before.”
Already, researchers have spotted interesting geology and lifeforms, some of which have not been able to identify on site. At least two different corals and a sponge were collected by the ROV’s robotic arm for further analysis. “Often we will find new species or new range extensions [of known species]“said Sowers.
Later in the expedition, the researchers will target the base of the same seamount, sending the ROV thousands of meters below. In the deepest dive of the entire ridge trip, the ROV is expected to travel up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) into the depths.
Understanding Earth and Beyond
In addition to corals and sponges, other biological wonders await. “One of the sites we will visit [later this week] is a vent site – a hydrothermal vent. Some of these areas support life that is not dependent on sunlight,” Sowers said. Through observation of extreme environments like underwater hydrothermal vents, we have broadened our understanding of the conditions that make life possible, on Earth and beyond.
“Previously, it was thought that only living things that are ultimately derived from sunlight can exist on Earth,” Sowers explained, but hydrothermal vents have proven that idea to be incorrect. “And it kind of changed the paradigm of how we think life can exist in space,” he added. “From deep-sea exploration, we get information about the possibility of [extraterrestrial] life in the universe.
In addition, of course, there is the possibility of getting to know our own planet better. From its basic geology to interconnected biology. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is where the tectonic plates meet.
“This area that we are exploring is where new sea beds are actually created and push tectonic plates apart. [it has] huge ramifications for understanding how planet Earth works,” Sowers explained. “We are still learning and trying to understand how the ocean floor forms and how these geological processes work,” he said.
“In addition to this geology, what is the biology that lives in all this variety of habitats that are created? We are really trying to get our first understanding of deep sea biodiversity,“said Sowers.