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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 4

Robots Explore the World’s Deepest Ocean Trenches

High-tech submersibles are poised to systematically explore the ocean's deepest trenches, answering long-standing questions about exotic creatures, the source of tsunamis and the origin of life on Earth

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On Aprıl 10 the U.S. research vessel Thomas G. Thompson will steam 900 kilometers northeast from New Zealand and stop in the wide open Pacific Ocean. If all goes according to plan, it will drop Nereus, a robotic vehicle the size of a subcompact car. Nereus will dive, and dive, and dive down to one of the deepest and most hostile places on earth: the Kermadec Trench. It will hit bottom at just beyond 10,000 meters—the extent of Mount Everest, plus a modest Smoky Mountain. There, in frigid, absolute darkness, under water pressure of 15,000 pounds per square inch—the equivalent of three SUVs pushing down on your big toe—Nereus will shine its lights on the unknown. A video camera will stream imagery back up to the Thompson along a drifting, fiber-optic filament the width of a human hair, which Nereus will have spooled out as it sank.

Scientists onboard the Thompson will be glued to their computer screens to see what strange life-forms appear. As they watch, Nereus's robot arm will grab animals and rocks from the trench floor. It will thrust a stiff tube into the seabed and pull up a core sample of the sediment there. And the robot will slurp glassfuls of water in hopes of trapping bacteria and other organisms that manage to survive in the extreme conditions.

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