Issue of November, 07, 2005
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Model of the SeaOrbiter.
Credit:
Accents
A New Nautilus
By Julio Godoy

The SeaOrbiter, a half-submerged mobile research lab of impressive futuristic design, will study marine pollution and marine life beginning in 2008. Tierramérica spoke with its creator, the French architect and oceanographer Jacques Rougerie.

PARIS, (Tierramérica).- The SeaOrbiter looks like a strange marine object, straight from the imagination of author Jules Verne. A silent vessel with no engine, it measures 51 meters high and half-submerged, and will travel the Atlantic currents to study marine life and pollution.

Unlike the Nautilus submarine, imagined by Verne in the 19th century in his book "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", and unlike other modern underwater exploration vehicles that have to return regularly to the surface, the SeaOrbiter will be able to observe the ocean 24 hours a day, with 31 meters of its structure always beneath the water.

The SeaOrbiter will carry and 18-person crew who will spend three months in 2008 studying the effects of contamination on the ocean's ecosystems, the role of the marine currents, and even the behavior of species in the presence of this enormous, nearly silent object.

The creator of the project, French architect and oceanographer Jacques Rougerie, says the main objective of the mission is to bring the attention of the general public to the sea and to the threats it faces.

"My principal goal is educational: give people the chance to learn a little more about the sea," Rougerie told Tierramérica in a conversation at his offices in Paris, set up on a ship anchored in the River Seine, just meters from the Place de la Concorde.

"The SeaOrbiter will have a team of oceanographers and environmentalists, with high-quality technical equipment to analyze the presence of carbon dioxide in the seawater and its dissemination by the currents," he said.

The floating laboratory's crew will be able to study the salinity of the ocean's waters, the dynamics of the different currents, the rates of changes in the populations of species, and many other things.

Rougerie's vessel will have cameras and microphones operated by remote control to record images and sounds 600 meters deep. All of the video and sound recorded will be made available to the public in real time, thanks to high-speed Internet connection.

The expert came up with the idea for the SeaOrbiter four years ago as part of his efforts to study marine contamination. He fears that, given its dynamic, the ocean waters will become an uncontrollable vector for contaminants and viruses.

"As we can see today with the bird flu epidemic, there are mutating viruses," said Rougerie. "There is the possibility that a virus could adapt to a marine organism, and that would constitute an ecological and health catastrophe of global dimensions, given the dynamic of the marine currents."

The SeaOrbiter will travel guided by the current of warm water that flows through the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico towards the European coast over three months, beginning in the northern hemisphere summer of 2008, and will operate as a permanent sentry of marine biology.

In its 31-meter submerged portion, the vehicle will have a pressurized section that will allow the crew to exit the craft underwater directly in case any unexpected action or test becomes necessary, without having to undergo the long sessions of decompression associated with scuba diving.

Because the living conditions aboard a vessel like this are comparable to those of a spaceship, the SeaOrbiter could serve as a training base for astronauts.

Participating in the design of the vessel and its mission are several astronauts from the United States, including Scott Carpenter, one of the first to navigate in outer space, and Bill Todd, head of the research program of the U.S. space agency NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO.

The portion of the SeaOrbitor that is above sea level, measuring more than 20 meters high, will operate at normal land pressure.

Because the SeaOrbiter doesn't have any engines, except for a few thrusters, it will be carried by ocean currents, and its submerged surface could turn into habitat for several living species, given the attraction of floating objects for all kinds of marine species, from microorganisms to some relatively large fish.

This will allow the crew to study marine life under these special conditions and add themselves to the epics of ocean exploration, like the shipwrecked Pacific expedition of the Astrolab of Le Perouse in 1785, or the Glomar Challenger science vessel, which in the 1970s perforated the ocean floor.

The SeaOrbiter project is an association of private companies and the oceanographic institutes of Marintek, in Norway and Paris.

* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.

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