Can $7 million XPrize shift focus from 'sexy sciences' to Earth's oceans?

Oceans account for 70 percent of the home planet's surface, but reliable maps exist for only 7 percent of the ocean floor. XPrize and Shell are offering up $7 million to change that.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters/File
Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, displays a mud sample extracted from the depths of about 13,123 ft. below the Pacific ocean surface, July 5, 2011. XPrize announced a competition Monday to better explore and the ocean floor.

The XPrize Foundation is offering up $7 million in hopes of enticing mankind's interest away from the stars for a moment and down toward the Earth's largest natural resource – the ocean.

The educational organization's newest competition seeks to counter the research slump that ocean study suffers when public interest and funding leans in favor of space and other "sexy science" fields.

“We know more about the surface of Mars than we do our own oceans,” XPrize chairman and chief executive Peter Diamandis said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, according to Discovery News.

The three-year competition launched Monday invites scientists the world over to study the ocean floor. The Ocean Discovery XPrize offers $7 million to the team that develops the toughest robots capable of exploring the ocean floor 2.5 miles below the water's surface. The robotic vehicles must use high-resolution photos to identify and map features of geologic, archaeological, and biological import.

The teams will be judged on both their vehicles' ability to navigate the depths autonomously and the quality of the underwater photos.

The national preference for stargazing over scuba-sleuthing can be seen in a quick follow-the-money exercise, as Jessica Mendoza previously reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

A big part of the problem is that oceanography just doesn’t seem as sexy as, say, space exploration. To break it down in numbers: In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, which runs ocean research as well as climate forecasting, fishery management, and others, received a little over $23 million in government funding for its exploration program, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. NASA’s exploration budget for that year, on the other hand, was about $3.8 billion, the same report found.

The money shows, as maps for the moon and Mars are more extensive than maps of the ocean floor, wrote Andrew Kornblatt for National Geographic. Oceans account for 70 percent of the home planet's surface, but reliable maps exist for only 7 percent of the ocean floor.

The competition sponsored by Shell and XPrize, a foundation that hosts competitions to improve the lot of mankind, aims to decrease that gap by focusing directly on mapping the ocean floor.

"Collectively, Shell, NOAA and XPRIZE are all aligned in our goals, which is really the discovery of what is down there, what’s in the deep ocean,” said Senior Director and XPrize Lead Dr. Jyotika Virmani according to National Geographic. “We want to help spur unparalleled ocean exploration through innovation and radical breakthroughs to find all the different wonders in the deep sea."

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