Okeanos Explorer to delve the depths of the seas

Gearing up to set sail, NOAA's high-tech ship is dedicated to deep-ocean exploration and public education.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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Someone walks aboard the Okeanos Explorer beneath the satellite dome.
Someone walks aboard the Okeanos Explorer beneath the satellite dome. James Martin/CNET

Docked off San Francisco's Pier 27 and rocking calmly in the bay, the Okeanos Explorer awaits its return to sea.

The ship--once a U.S. Navy vessel now under control of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)--is in the midst of being outfitted exclusively for deep-ocean exploration and discovery. Its purpose will be to investigate unknown, misunderstood, and other below-the-surface phenomena. It is expected to be fully operational by next summer.

With up to 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, there are vast amounts of research for the ship to pursue. However, the Okeanos Explorer will have a second function as well: education.

On Friday, NOAA announced a five-year partnership with San Francisco's Exploratorium that will enable the public to learn about discoveries in real time as the vessel crisscrosses the globe.

"Imagine being there as discoveries are made," said Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator for NOAA. "That's what we'll be able to do with this partnership."

"Imagine being there as discoveries are made. That's what we'll be able to do with this partnership."
--Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator for NOAA

Cameras cover the ship. With the 224-foot-long vessel's live broadcast and satellite capabilities, scientists hope to engage students, teachers, and the general public. Data will be available to anyone who is interested.

"This new partnership is intended to engage the public with a special focus on oceans and science," said Jane Lubchenco, who holds the joint title of NOAA's administrator and the Commerce Department's under secretary for oceans and atmosphere. "(We) need partners who are experts to help us create a scientifically literate society."

To bring this information to the public, the Exploratorium is in the midst of creating an online package for the Okeanos Explorer, complete with blogs, video and audio clips, RSS feeds, and even tweets from the ship's scientists. They will post information on recent discoveries, as well as general information on climate change and weather phenomena. Tried and true fans will even be able to track the ship through Google Earth and live streaming video.

At first glance the Okeanos Explorer doesn't look particularly high tech--it has the typical life boats, anchors, and an average looking deck. But jutting out of the mast, high above the ship's bridge, is what looks like a giant white soccer ball. This is its satellite dome.

"The first time in there can be pretty scary," said Richard Conway, chief electronic technician for the vessel, "especially because it moves, tilting down and tilting up."

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As it moves, the 12-foot diameter satellite dome is transmitting data to scientists, shifting to find the best connection. It live-feeds videos and information to the "Exploration Command Centers" based on land--and to the Exploratorium. The dome can send information anywhere in the world and "can even track well in rough waters," said Conway.

Working in conjunction with the dome is the control room, the nerve center of the ship. It's a windowless, black-walled room, covered floor to ceiling with high-definition computer screens that beam colorful topographical maps and videos of the ocean floor. All data, from the ocean's surface to its floor, is collected and tracked here. Using telepresence technology, this same data is transmitted to more scientists, based on land, who can then examine the information more thoroughly.

One of the means of gathering information about oceans are remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). The Okeanos Explorer will have two ROVs equipped with high-definition cameras, lights, and sensors, tethered to a 19,700-foot cable.

ROVs are perfect for searching underexplored parts of the ocean, including shipwrecks.

One specific shipwreck in the Black Sea has particularly caught Okeanos Explorer scientists' interest. The vessel is 2,000 years old and is perfectly preserved because it is in a part of the sea where oxygen doesn't exist. They intend to explore it once the Okeanos Explorer is fully operational.

Even though the Okeanos Explorer is not yet completely up and running, it has done some preliminary missions and has even discovered an anomaly near Cape Mendocino, Calif. In May, with a multibeam sonar mounted on the ship's hull, it detected a 4,500-foot plume of what the scientists believe to be methane gas rising from the seafloor.

Next week, the ship sets sail for Honolulu where it will continue to work out kinks and conduct field trials. When ready, it will embark on its first official exploratory trip--a voyage to Indonesia, where it will closely study the surrounding geology, sea volcanoes, and biological hotspots.

The control room is full of high-definition computer screens with topographical maps and videos of the ocean floor.
The control room is full of high-definition computer screens with topographical maps and videos of the ocean floor. James Martin/CNET