Exploring the Vast Unknowns of the Sea

Project Neptune will allow scientists to study the dynamic processes that drive plate tectonics, and the rest of us have been invited along for the ride. The data, including images, will be available to anyone via the Internet once the project is operational in four or five years.

Delaney says he wants it to be like a public "oceanarium."

"Oceans are the most fascinating feature of our solar system," he says. "We want everyone with a home computer to be able to access what we're studying and eventually involve schoolchildren in our robotic operations, allowing them to experience firsthand the mysteries of the deep."

Texans Discovering What Drilling Is Doing

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas, scientists want to know more than just what the ocean is like. They want to know what we're doing to it.

So a consortium of universities, led by Texas A&M, is using a 10-foot-tall, 1-ton robotic device to study the deeper regions of the Gulf of Mexico before oil drilling begins there.

"Oil companies have been drilling on the continental shelf of the Gulf for the past 50 years," says Gilbert T. Rowe, a Texas A&M oceanography professor and head of the project. But technology now makes it possible to drill in deeper water and there is great concern over the environmental impact of exploration and production at greater depths, he says.

The scientists will use the "lander," which is naturally buoyant and drops weights to descend to the ocean bottom, to study marine life and its environment at depths of up to 9,000 feet.

"There are a lot of bizarre fauna down there," Rowe says. "For example, there are creatures that act like buzzards, cleaning up the ecosystem. One question is how they find dead carcasses in such a clean, dark, cold, featureless landscape."

Spreading Censors Explored

At the other end of North America, the spanking new Coast Guard icebreaker will have one primary target on its list. Scientists aboard the Healy will study the Gakkel Ridge, more than 3 miles below the surface. The Gakkel Ridge is one of many "spreading centers" around the world where chunks of the seafloor are spreading apart, allowing new ocean bottom to form as magma flows up through the ridge.

But what makes the Gakkel Ridge so fascinating to scientists is it spreads at about a twentieth of the pace of other spreading centers. And unlike other ridges, which bubble with heat as molten rock spews onto the ocean floor, Gakkel is sort of like a "big crack in the Earth," according to Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who first came up with the idea of studying the ridge 15 years ago.

That means there may be all sorts of life down there that is very different from life near other spreading centers.

The Healy will be working jointly with a German icebreaker Polarstern, and the ships will work in tandem along 500 miles of the ridge. First the ships will have to break the ice, then they will drop a rather crude-looking device dubbed unofficially as a "bed of nails." The device will be attached to a long cable, so it can be hauled back up with, researchers hope, chunks of rock from the ridge attached.

And when it's all over, the mysteries of the deep should be a little less mysterious.

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