A team of marine scientists steamed away from this sleepy seaside village yesterday with one goal: to emerge from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean with a televised tour of the Titanic. Ten months ago, the wreckage of the ``unsinkable'' luxury liner was spotted by Argo -- an unmanned submarine named for the mythological ship that led the Greek hero Jason to the Golden Fleece. The deep-sea explorer -- developed by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and funded in part by the Navy -- had made the first sighting of the ship since April 14, 1912, when it was ripped open by an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Closer inspection by another machine yielded stunning photos of the ship's exterior in the lightless depths of the Atlantic Ocean some 370 miles south of the Newfoundland coast.
On Wednesday, however, chief scientist Robert D. Ballard and his Navy-funded crew launched another expedition to the Titanic site that promises to go a step further. With Jason Jr. -- a small, tethered robot equipped with a rotating camera -- the scientists hope to bring back a modern-day Golden Fleece: high-resolution video images of the ship's inner sanctum.
A televised tour of the 13-story ship would be tantalizing to many people. But the ultimate value of this deep-sea technology has little to do with the history and mystery of the shipwreck. For scientists, Jason Jr. represents a newfound capacity for mapping, exploring, and researching deep-sea terrain. And for Navy officials, the little robot -- and the larger, more sophisticated vehicles to follow -- could spell progress for national security. Not only will they assist search-and-recovery missions, they say, but they could eventually scan the ocean floor for missile launchers and other foreign objects.
It's not that progress toward these goals has not already been made. In recent years, the United States, Japan, France, England, and a handful of major oil companies have helped fuel a quiet revolution in the field of underwater exploration.
But according to crew members, Jason Jr. is the first vehicle able to dive so deep, display such maneuverability, and deliver high-quality film footage. During the three-week expedition, Dr. Ballard -- along with a pilot and another scientist -- will plunge 12,500 feet in the submarine Alvin to the top deck of the Titanic. From a safe, stand-off position, the crew members will let the tethered robot -- like a sea turtle on a leash -- ``swim'' through the ship's chambers.
``There aren't that many countries or organizations in the world that could even go down there,'' says Ballard, quickly naming France's Nautile and the US Navy's Sea Cliff. And ``the swimming eyeball,'' he says, using his pet name for Jason Jr., ``is the only system of its kind that can work from a submarine at 20,000 feet.''
That easy claim to US superiority may have been tested by a French team that had been invited to join the expedition. French scientists have reportedly developed a vehicle similar to Jason Jr. But their outfit backed out of the trip less than two weeks ago due to a lack of funding. And nobody is sure how sophisticated the Soviet Union's deep-sea technology is at this point.
But no matter what, Navy officials think Jason Jr.'s Golden Fleece could add something special to their fleet.