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Into the Deep

January 2, 2014 (posted January 3, 2014)
by David Levin

The roar of the ship’s engines, a constant presence over the last four days, suddenly drops to a low rumble, and the Atlantis glides to a halt. We've finally arrived at the East Pacific rise, a chain of undersea volcanoes that is home to the vents we'll study for the next month.

Not that you could tell by looking. All around us, as far as we can see, is deep blue water.

"It's funny. You'd never guess we were anywhere special,” said chief scientist Stefan Sievert. “The ocean looks the same everywhere, at least on the surface. But the seafloor has really distinct features."

Getting to the right feature is the hard part. The exact spot we’re searching for, a vent nicknamed “Crab Spa,” is nearly a mile and a half below the surface—a place that’s only accessible to us through the eyes of Jason, which sits waiting on the stern of the ship.

Jason gets ready

Engineers, technicians, and pilots from the Jason team swarm around the vehicle. They’re going through checklists, testing motors, and checking communications systems.

The vehicle looks incredibly complex. Hydraulic lines snake around its interior. Multicolored circuit boards and cables rest inside clear plastic boxes filled with oil, which protects them from the water and the crushing pressures at the bottom.

To the untrained eye, it seems like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. But to an engineer, it’s just a matter of breaking things down.

“In a way, every vehicle is more or less the same,” said Rick Sanger, an electronics technician on the Jason team. “They all have just a few key systems, like buoyancy, propulsion, electrical, manipulators, and something to help them navigate. It’s a lot easier to understand once you break it into categories."

One of those categories is immediately apparent. A yellow strobe light on the deck starts flashing, a sign to everyone on the deck that 3,000 volts of electricity are now coming down the tether cable. Jason is alive.

Tito Collasius, Jason expedition leader, clears scientists from the deck. This is where things get start to get dangerous.

If an electrical short were to happen now, it could shock anyone in contact with the vehicle. If there’s a computer glitch, the massive robotic arms could swing out suddenly and hit bystanders, causing a potentially deadly injury.

Into the water

But the power contained in Jason isn’t the only concern at this point. Just getting it off the deck and into the water can be tricky, especially in rough seas. As Jason is being lifted and moved toward the water by a crane, if the ship sways back and forth, it can swing the 9,000-pound vehicle back and forth, knocking it into the side of the ship, or—even worse—into the crew on deck.

“Launch and recovery is a real art form,” said Sanger. “There are lots of variables, like rough weather. We could lose communication with the vehicle, lose power, propulsion.”

The team has plans in place to deal with those situations, and they have dealt with them before. But today, Sanger isn’t concerned. All of Jason’s systems seem to be working well, and the weather is calm and sunny, with just a few small waves rippling along the surface. This launch will be a smooth one.

A few minutes later, the Atlantis crew lowers the ship’s wire railing, and in one slow, steady motion, a crane at the stern hoists Jason up and over the side, placing it gently into the ocean.

Next in the water is Medea, Jason’s smaller partner vehicle, which helps stabilize the cable that connects the pair to the ship and provides another camera platform for the Jason team to watch Jason at work in the depths.

The two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) slip silently under the surface and disappear from sight. Now, the waiting begins.

Another world

For an hour, everything is quiet on the ship. Crew members hose the decks and scrub oil residue from the empty space where the vehicles sat just minutes before.

In Jason’s control van, Korey Verhein, one of Jason’s pilots, sits patiently watching as a wall of video screens—nearly 50 in all—fill with information. High-definition cameras beam back multiple views from Jason as it descends. For nearly an hour, the water is dark, broken only by a few scattered flecks of white material that float past the vehicle’s lights.

As we approach the bottom, Verhein slows the vehicle’s descent, and the group of scientists packed into the room behind him goes silent. Suddenly, something emerges. Out of the murky depth, we can make out glittering pillows of lava scattered on the ocean floor. They’re remnants of an eruption from eight years ago, and they mean one thing: We’ve arrived.

Before long, the team has located Crab Spa. The vent’s namesake crabs skitter around on the rock, darting between thickets of white and red tubeworms. Looking at this scene feels like looking at the surface of another planet, and even through a video screen, it’s breathtaking. But this is no time to be lost in a haze of amazement. Now that we’ve arrived, there’s plenty of work to be done.


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