NASA's New Horizons probe may be sending back all sorts of interesting images from Pluto, but humanity doesn't have to go that far to explore an undiscovered land. The Earth has literal oceans of uncharted space where we can boldly go where no man has gone before.
"We know more about the surface of the moon and more about the surface of Pluto than we do about a fair amount of the ocean bottom and the water between the surface and the bottom," said James Delgado, Duke University's director of maritime heritage and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's director of national marine sanctuaries. "It truly is the final frontier. I'd say about 95 percent of the oceans are unknown to humans."
So it shouldn't be that big of a surprise that, according to a statement from Duke, a shipwreck has been hiding at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of North Carolina since as far back as the late 18th century.
Scientists working on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's research ship Atlantis came across the wreckage with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) named Sentry and a manned submersible named Alvin. Delgado told CNET's Crave blog that the ship also has sonar devices that can map the seabed and a satellite communication system "so they can talk to scientists on shore."
"Any mission we do involves all sorts of scientists -- like geologists, historians, archaeologists, marine biologists -- with different specialities," he said. "It's like a NASA mission. When you launch that probe, there's not just one type of scientist looking at that screen."
Further searches of the wreckage have turned up a number of artifacts sitting like puzzle pieces on the ocean floor that can help researchers piece together the full picture of this ship. Some of the artifacts found so far include an iron chain, glass bottles, a metal compass and some kind of navigational instrument. These put the age of the ship at somewhere between the late 18th century and early 19th century. They also indicate that the ship may have been used for maritime trade purposes before it became an underwater smorgasbord for the world's largest aquarium, according to the statement.
Delgado says that researchers involved with the find and subsequent study are still poring through the data collected by the Atlantis team to determine more about the ship's history and the effect it may have had on the ocean and habitats that surround it.
"It's a small vessel as far as we can tell that was an everyday, working boat, so that means it's out there sort of like the regular person on the street that somebody may have engaged with in maritime trade," Delgado said. "Maybe it was a group of folks or maybe a family was involved. It's hard to say. We don't know, but what does seem to be the case was that somebody out there may have been caught up in the gulf stream in a storm and sank upright and was sitting upright."
This sunken ship may not have a famous name like the RMS Titanic or the USS Baltimore, but Delgado says he and other scientists see this and similar discoveries as significant because of the potential information they can provide about so many things, such as maritime and economic history and their impact on the ocean and its organisms.
Just as the shipwreck has become a buffet for sea life at the bottom of the ocean, this ship could also serve up a ton of tasty treats for the people studying it, beyond obvious things such as the satisfying of historical curiosity.
"Because the oceans are the primary generator of oxygen, and because the oceans are changing and rising and have risen in the past, then it seems we need to spend more time understanding them, appreciating them and better learning what (discoveries there have) to tell us," Delgado said, "including lessons about our own past as well as perhaps the impact of our activities on (the seas)."