Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has been recognized by IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization advancing technology, through its Milestone program for the long-running success of its human-occupied submersible Alvin. Read the press release here.
WHOI scientists talk with CNN about what the sub’s latest upgrade means for deep-sea science. Read the whole story.
ROV Jason is helping researchers get their arms around the question of what damage seafloor mining might do to little-studied deep-ocean ecosystems. Learn more in this podcast from Undark magazine.
Willamette University environmental microbiologist Rosa León Zayas recounts her deep dive in HOV Alvin during the sub’s recent science verification expedition for the podcast Solveit for Kids.
There is brief discussion about the difficulty of getting the zoomed-in camera to center on the animal, resting on a seafloor puckered with ancient pillow lava at the Mid-Cayman rise – a divergent plate boundary at one of the deepest points on the floor of the Caribbean Sea, near the Cayman Islands.
“Let’s go nice and slow with this. Nice and slow,” the first scientist says, his voice measured and calm. “Ok…line it up for the shot.”
The human-occupied submersible Alvin is ready to return to scientific research at its newly certified maximum depth of 6500 meters (4 miles). That’s the conclusion of a team of scientists who have spent the past three weeks taking the iconic sub through its paces at locations at the Puerto Rico Trench and Mid-Cayman Rise, testing its scientific and engineering systems to ensure they are capable of supporting the demands of deep-sea sample and data collection.
“We set a high bar for Alvin and it easily met or exceeded our expectations,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Associate Scientist Anna Michel, chief scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility that operates Alvin. “Alvin is ready for science.”
Members of the Alvin operations team enjoy early-morning coffee and conversation on the aft deck on August 18, 2022. In total, the whole team consumed 140 pounds of coffee. Photo by Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The noisy rip of packing tape echoes across the empty Main Lab aboard R/V Atlantis. As our science team packs up all their equipment, samples, and supplies, I stand with Adam Soule, reviewing a list of facts and figures from the past month.
Here are a few of them:
15 millimeters rate at which plates at the Cayman Rise are separating each year
4,960 meters depth of Beebe Vent Field, world’s deepest known hydrothermal system
102 hours Alvin spent submerged
53 hours spent exploring the seafloor
122 samples were collected from the seafloor
6,322 meters depth at our deepest dive site
140 pounds of coffee consumed
Anna Michel walks over to see what we’re looking at.
“The numbers are impressive,” she says. “But that list doesn’t include the countless hours of hard work from each member of the team-that’s something you can’t quantify.”
Michel is right. Another impossible metric to calculate is the number of people and all the planning and preparation that came before this expedition. Sending Alvin deeper than it has ever gone before is no small feat and everyone on board (and across the deep submergence community) is thrilled with the success of this mission.
“The effort to get Alvin to 6500 meters has spanned over two decades, and countless people have contributed to making that happen,” says Expedition Leader Randy Holt. “Now, as we pull into Tampa, we close that chapter and open a new one.”
This expedition was a major success-not just for our team on board, but for the Alvin program and the entire scientific community.
“The new capabilities of a 6500-meter rated Alvin will continue the tradition of enabling generations of scientists the opportunity to make discoveries that will change the way we view the ocean and our world,” Soule says. “It’s an honor to be a part of that tradition.”
Andy Klesh smiles as he climbs out of Alvin after a successful dive on August 13, 2022. Photo by Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
In the darkness, with all external lights extinguished, pale spots shine, tiny specks in the black. Oddly enough for a NASA engineer, these aren’t stars or planets, but phosphorescent creatures, beacons of light and life in the deep blue sea. It’s been an exciting, spectacular, and strangely calm day as we-a crew of three onboard HOV Alvin-reflect on our dive and ascend from a depth of 2,400 meters.
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I lead teams to explore extreme environments. From the MarCO mission that in 2018 sent the smallest-ever interplanetary spacecraft to flyby Mars in support of the InSight Mars lander, to BRUIE-a possible precursor to a future Europa explorer-which buoyantly floats to “drive” on the underside of ice sheets. Our teams have backpacked ROVs onto glaciers to dive into moulins, and deployed novel seismic networks to image the subsurface interior of active volcanoes.
The goal is scientific exploration of environments that seem impossible to reach, with quick-turnaround, low-cost explorers. We balance high-risk and low-cost with extremely focused objectives, and-like WHOI-rely on rapid iteration to build a novel explorer.
Now, with Alvin passing certification to explore 6500 meters beneath the ocean’s surface, we are partnering with WHOI to trade lessons, collaborate on developments, and explore Ocean Worlds-both here on Earth and beyond.
Interplanetary spacecraft rely on radio ranging for navigation, communicating over slow, latent links, and are designed to protect internal electronics from the harsh and dangerous exposure of the external environment. Once they launch, engineers and scientists rely on ingenuity, systematic troubleshooting, and a deep understanding of spacecraft systems to fix problems. You can’t reach out and unplug or reset the vehicle when there is an issue.
In the ocean, the challenges are remarkably similar-science-driven missions, harsh environments, and closely related methods for communication and navigation. But here, vehicles are retrievable and designed for rapid-turnaround. HOV Alvin dives every day.
Andy Klesh coordinates with Edward Popowitz, the bosun, before deploying a small ROV from the aft deck of R/V Atlantis on August 14, 2022. Photo by Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Together, JPL and WHOI engineers and scientists have developed the Orpheus-class explorer, an AUV one eighth the size of a usual robotic explorer of the deep. When an expedition in 2019 had a robotic vehicle trapped 4000-meters under the sea ice, the combined team made use of onboard resources (including significant amounts of zip ties and electrical tape) to cobble together SpongeBob SpareParts to attempt a rescue. That effort led to an even smaller full-ocean depth vehicle (appropriately nicknamed MiniSub), small enough to ride along with Alvin.
As part of this Science Verification Expedition, our teams have been discussing how small vehicles like MiniSub and Orpheus might augment crewed exploration with Alvin, expanding reach, providing an external flyable eye, or allowing exploration into more challenging and fascinating areas, such as within black-smoker forests or down within the seeps themselves. Augmenting human exploration with robotic tools has long been an interest of human spaceflight as well.
The ocean has long fascinated humanity. Wherever we find water on Earth, we tend to find life. Alvin is now bringing crews of scientists to areas of the ocean still poorly explored, even as NASA aims to explore Ocean Worlds beyond our own. Exploring the unknown requires creativity, daring, and determination. Now, space and ocean explorers are learning from each other to advance the exploration of each regime.
As Alvin reaches the brilliant blue surface, divers appear in our windows to welcome us home. Our crew gently bobs in the sea, continuing to scheme on how we can further extend humanity’s reach-both deep under the ocean and deep into space.
Andy Klesh chats with WHOI Space and Planetary Scientist Catherine Walker on the aft deck after his dive. Photo by Marley Parker © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Below about 200 meters in the ocean, much of the light from the sun disappears, absorbed by seawater above. That means every glimmer used by scientists in Alvin to observe and record the deep seafloor has to be provided by the submersible’s lights and batteries. But more light means a greater impact on the finite power supply that Alvin needs for all of its operational and scientific equipment. Fortunately, lighting technology has advanced dramatically over the years, keeping pace with the increased demands of high-definition video cameras all of which require more light for the larger imaging sensors they carry, while at the same time pushing back the darkness farther. And, in the case of the recent upgrade, taking that light deeper than ever.
For the past 30 years, much of the light Alvin has carried into the depths, and that have resulted in iconic images of Titanic, hydrothermal vents, and other deep-sea scenes, has been produced by lighting systems made by Deep Sea Power and Light (DSPL) in San Diego, Calif. On the Science Verification Expedition (SVE), they continued that legacy by manufacturing ten high-efficiency, very high-intensity LEDs light-heads, rated to 11,000 meters operational depth, that will light the seafloor around Alvin for years to come.
The reason we dive is to understand the deep ocean through exploration and research and to document what we see to support ongoing and future research,” said WHOI biologist Tim Shank. “We need reliable lighting to make that possible.”
Early video lighting systems consisted of incandescent bulbs in glass housings with their electronics in separate pressure housings to provide illumination for scientists aiming handheld camcorders out the portholes and later, for standard-definition video cameras mounted outside the sub. In the early 1990s, DSPL adapted high-intensity HMI (hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide) lights used in movie production to help James Cameron film the wreck of the Titanic using the Russian submersibles Mir I and II. Soon after, Alvin-and the remotely operated vehicle Jason-got its own set of HMI lights, which it kept through the eventual upgrade to more power-hungry high-definition cameras.
In the mid-2000s, the advent of LED lights, with more pressure-tolerant components and electronics, began to replace the more bulky and power-hungry HMI lights on deep-sea vehicles. At the same time, video technology was also advancing, with ultra-high definition 4K cameras gradually becoming the norm. Alvin got a first-generation DSPL 4K camera in 2018, followed, in the recent upgrade, by more compact UHD cameras rated for the sub’s new maximum operating depth of 6,500 meters. In addition, the Alvin got new, more efficient LED lights in titanium pressure housings, eight of which were added during the Science Verification Expedition and all of which were tested to 11,000 meters-a requirement by the Naval Sea Systems Command for every element of the sub in order to achieve certification for 6,500 meters.
“The testing we do is what’s really unique about the lights we supplied,” said Brian Braden, Sales Manager at DSPL. “We had to trace the origin of each bar of titanium used in each housing through the manufacturing process and provide everything so that WHOI doesn’t have to do any additional testing. I’m pretty proud of that.”A rock covered in filamentous microbes on the Mid-Cayman Rise near the Beebe Vent Field lit by Alvin’s new lighting system and recorded in 4K video. (Courtesy of Anna Michel, WHOI and Adam Soule, URI/NSF/HOV Alvin, 2022 © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
During the SVE, Shank and members of the Alvin Team mounted the first of what will eventually be ten high-intensity, high-efficiency LEDs. The new lights are a near-exact replica of the slightly bluish tint of sunlight and much brighter than the ones they replace. In addition, Shank is turning the lights as a scientific tool by performing an experiment to determine whether light from the submersible causes stress to animals at a hydrothermal vent. The real proof of their usefulness, however, will come in what they reveal as they push back the darkness of the deep.
“It’s remarkable the difference in how far we can see with the new LED lights, and for the same amount of power,” said Shank. “We really came out ahead on this. I can’t wait to see what Alvin shows us.”
(CNS): Sabrina Douglas, assistant geographical information systems (GIS) and field support specialist at the Department of Environment, became the first Caymanian to dive the depths of the Cayman Trench inside Alvin, a specialist submersible, as part of an ocean exploration research project currently underway into this mysterious part of the Atlantic.
Douglas is working aboard the Atlantis with a research team from the non-profit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studying the bizarre landscape and unique life in what is also known as the Cayman Trough.