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What lies beneath?

Undersea observatories could unlock secrets about everything from fisheries to climate shifts.

(Page 3 of 3)

Even as NOAA is taking its coastal-observatory concept out for a test drive, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is preparing a more ambitious program. It aims to establish coastal, regional, and deep-ocean observatories that can help answer fundamental oceanographic questions while developing the cutting-edge sensors and robotic explorers that eventually could work their way into observing systems designed for broader consumption.

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The scope of the project is unprecedented. "I don't think anything's been tried like this before," says James Yoder, director of the ocean-sciences division of the NSF. The estimated cost of the agency's Ocean Observation Initiative sits at $200 million just to lay cable, put out buoys, and provide power.

In January, marine scientists are scheduled to gather in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to come up with their short list of critical instruments to connect to the ocean initiative's backbone.

The element that pushes the technological envelope to its ultimate is Neptune, a US-Canadian observatory that would set up an array of buoys, sensors, and "smart" autonomous underwater vehicles that would cover an entire crustal plate and the waters above it.

Satellite links would relay instructions to the AUVs - perhaps docked at stations along the buoys' mooring cables. Once the AUVs returned, they would dock, offload their data, recharge their batteries, and stand by for another mission.

Neptune connection

Much of the development work is taking place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Monterey, Calif.

The effort also has piqued the interest of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. JPL's interest in Neptune can be traced to the lab's longstanding effort to study its home planet, notes Patricia Beauchamp, who heads JPL's Neptune-project office. But the R&D effort also has implications for future missions to Europa.

"We're very interested in trying to figure out how to work in the oceans," she says.

Back on the powerboat off Woods Hole, Stokey, Mr. Packard, and research assistant Amy Kukulya are puzzling over how to get Remus to work in the oceans as well. It scoots around the boat just beneath the surface as it lines itself up for the final attempt to nose through the target.

The first attempt succeeded. The next eight failed, although Packard says he suspects that Remus at least hit the sides of the target a couple of times. Now comes try No. 10, and Packard groans. "Missed! Well, thanks for playing."

The team hauls Remus out of the water, hoists it back on its rack at the stern, and heads home.

As if to soothe dashed hopes, Stokey reminds a visitor, "This was just an experiment."

Tallies from the deep

The oceans contain:

• 80 percent of all life on Earth, most of which remains undiscovered.

• 97 percent of the Earth's water.

• Enough salt to cover the Earth's land surface with a layer more than 500 feet thick, roughly the height of a 40-story office building.

• The first plants on earth, the algae, developed 3.5 billion years ago. [Editor's note: The original version gave the incorrect age of algae.]

• The equivalent of a new Exxon Valdez oil spill every eight months, due to oil running off streets and driveways.