Before setting his sights once again on the far-off moon Pandora for the next Avatar adventure, filmmaker and aquanaut James Cameron has bequeathed arguably his greatest technological accomplishment to science. Cameron's DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submarine, which he drove to the deepest part of this planet last March, arrives this summer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, ultimately helping researchers there better understand life in the earth's last unexplored frontier.
Cameron and his team of engineers outfitted the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER with cutting-edge technology that allowed it to become the first manned mission to the Pacific Ocean's Challenger Deep site, about 11 kilometers below the water's surface. Most immediately, Woods Hole scientists will install DEEPSEA CHALLENGER's lightweight, highly maneuverable cameras and a lighting system that Cameron and his team designed onto the institute's Nereus robotic sub, which has been exploring the oceans' depths since 2009. The Nereus team is preparing for a six-week voyage—funded by the National Science Foundation to the tune of about $1.4 million—beginning in February 2014 to study the Pacific Ocean's Kermadec Trench, which is about 10 kilometers deep.
In addition to the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER itself, Cameron is kicking in nearly $1 million to help Woods Hole scientists and engineers make the sub's technology more widely available for deep-sea exploration. “To me, that's an infinitely better outcome than [the sub] sitting dormant until I'm done with my next two movies,” said Cameron in April during a roundtable discussion in New York City with Woods Hole scientists.
Researchers want to explore every aspect of oceanography in the deepwater hadal regions—those anywhere below a depth of six kilometers. They want to know what lives there, how it evolved and what it eats, said Tim Shank, an associate scientist in Woods Hole's biology department and leader of its Hadal Ecosystem Studies (HADES) project. But most vehicles that can withstand the extreme pressure at those depths are heavier and more difficult to manage, making them more expensive and less fuel-efficient. Cameron's engineers developed new materials—including a syntactic foam made from millions of hollow glass microspheres suspended in an epoxy resin—to strengthen the sub's hull without adding a lot of weight. The vessel, which is 7.3 meters long but has an interior that is only 1.09 meters wide, also has a sphere-shaped, pressurized cockpit that collected evaporated moisture from Cameron's breath and sweat into a plastic bag, which would supply him with extra drinking water if necessary. The vessel descends vertically, with the cockpit near the bottom, underneath a 2.4-meter-long panel of lights and batteries.
The sub will arrive at Woods Hole shortly after the opening of the institution's new Centerfor Marine Robotics, which seeks to develop marine exploration technology with help from academe, the federal government and businesses. Some experts at the event pointed out that marine robotics has lagged behind terrestrial advances such as drones, in part because there is no Wi-Fi or GPS under the sea. That means there are many discoveries yet to be made. “So many people think we live in a postexploration age—it's all been seen, it's all been mapped,” Cameron said. “The aggregate area of these trenches is greater than the size of the United States, greater than the size of Australia, so it's basically like a continent that's been unexplored that exists right here on earth.”
This article was originally published with the title Going Deep.