Scripps Robotic Landers Used for Deep-Sea Exploration

Rebekah Hwang/UCSD Guardian

Virgin Oceanic — a company that uses deep-sea submarines to explore the trenches of the ocean — is working with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which will provide robotic landers and marine biology expertise in a race to deepest part of the ocean.

These devices are encased in high pressure-resistant glass balls that allow submarines to retrieve water and sediment samples, as well as provide incubation for microbes, crustacean and worm samples from the deepest parts of the ocean for scientists to study.

The landers are dropped into water from boats and fall to the bottom of the ocean, where they employ lights and cameras to illuminate the ocean floor for footage.

Scripps has used landers like this in the past to gather samples from hostile ocean environments, such as the Arctic Ocean and other similar ocean trenches.

SIO Marine Microbial Genetics Professor Doug Bartlett is one of the scientists working with Virgin Oceanic to study the life found in the deep.

“The appreciation that so much of life is found in the microbes of this planet, and [that] so many microbes are found in the deep ocean environments help drive [exploration of the deep],” he said.

Virgin Oceanic said on its website that these samples cannot only be used to map out the ecology of the ocean, but may provide information for biotechnology and medicine.

According to Bartlett, the scientific community still has many questions about microbes that exist in deep ocean environments.

“There are huge numbers of microbes down deep, so we wonder about what they do,” he said.

Much of the carbon dioxide fixation key to the environment is presumed to be present in the deep ocean. Researchers also aim to identify the kinds of degradative enzymes in the various organisms found, and whether certain microbes may have useful properties in developing antibiotics.

“I do think, if we find organisms, if we are able to culture new major branches of life, we will want to put a great deal of effort into biology of understanding these new organisms,” Bartlett said.

Virgin Oceanic’s submarine design, which incorporates elements of the company’s other projects, such as a small jet, will hold one person. The design flies to the bottom of the ocean and, if not flying, will head toward the surface.

The company’s plan is to make five dives over about three years in the deepest areas of the ocean. The first will take place in the Challenger Deep — part of the Marianna Trench located south of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. The area is known as the deepest point in the ocean, reaching a known depth of 6.78 miles.

According to the Virgin Oceanic website, the company hopes to make this dive in the Challenger Deep later this year.

There are two additional competitors in the race to the bottom: Triton Submarine and movie director James Cameron who, according to online magazine ExtremeTech, hopes to use the 3-D footage for the next “Avatar” movie.

“We are very excited about the scientific parts of this, but this is a race, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out among these three groups,” Bartlett said.