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An inaugural journey to the Arctic floor

NASA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution send robots where no man (or bot) has ever been.

On Sunday, an international team of scientists and engineers embarked for a place that has been cut off from Earth's other ecosystems for 26 million years.

Along with two autonomous underwater robots, the Gakkel Ridge expedition team has set out to explore and find life on the Arctic Ocean floor at the North Pole.

The team, which includes scientists and engineers from Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States, set sail from Svalbard, an island near the Arctic Circle, for the Gakkel Ridge, the deepest and most remote part of the Artic Ocean.

Gakkel Ridge expedition path
A topographic and bathymetric map of the Arctic Ocean with the planned Gakkel Ridge expedition path. Jack Cook/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/National Geophysical Data Center

The landmark expedition, which will run through August 10, has two main purposes.

First, the team hopes to find life in what the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) describes as "the world's most isolated ocean." The scientists intend to search the isolated area between Siberia and Greenland for submerged hot springs known as sea floor hydrothermal vents, which, it is hoped, support sea life.

It is unknown what wildlife, if any, will be found, but the team plans to keep the public abreast of its findings by posting a photo journal from WHOI's Polar Discovery Web site and videos and audio to the Dive and Discover site for children.

But the expedition is also a test for the two new autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which may have even more exotic exploration in their future.

The two robots, named Puma and Jaguar, were built by WHOI but funded by NASA. The U.S. space agency is interested in sending AUVs to explore beneath ice-covered oceans in outer space, such as those found on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

In addition to NASA's Astrobiology Program and the WHOI Deep Ocean Exploration Institute, the Gakkel Ridge expedition is also sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs and Division of Ocean Sciences, and the Gordon Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems division of its Engineering Research Center.