Lander May Touch Down Again in Fall


A lander used during James Cameron’s historic March 2012 dive to the deepest place on Earth might return there as soon as this fall, said researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

The lander accompanied the submersible piloted by the director of “Titanic,” “Avatar,” and the “Terminator” films to the Mariana Trench in the expedition known as DEEPSEA CHALLENGE. An unmanned platform outfitted with bait traps, cameras and science equipment, it was designed by longtime Scripps development engineer Kevin Hardy and colleagues and funded by Cameron.

On May 31, Cameron formally donated the lander while at UCSD to receive the 2013 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest. He also donated the $25,000 that comes with the prize to help launch the Scripps “Lander Lab” that will facilitate more field work. In future uses, the instrument systems can be sent to the deepest parts of the ocean outfitted with a variety of components that can deliver information on marine life, geochemistry, tectonics, and other phenomena of interest to individual researchers.

During his visit to UCSD, Cameron noted that the submersible he piloted got all the publicity – the day after his UC San Diego appearance, he was in Los Angeles to kick off its countrywide tour – but the relatively low-cost, easily transportable lander had the potential to open up the oceans to more exploration.

“In terms of getting actual science done, I think this is a really powerful platform,” Cameron said, showing off the lander – his only companion on the seafloor – to reporters.

Scripps marine microbiologist Doug Bartlett, the chief scientist of DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, said that the availability of ship time will be the key factor dictating when the lander is deployed next. Researchers are considering cruises to either the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean or the Puerto Rico Trench.

“The goal will be to deploy two sets of landers, each equipped with standard and pressure-retaining water samplers,” Bartlett said.  “This will allow us to explore the effect of decompression on the recovery of microorganisms from the greatest ocean depths.”

Cameron lamented that the deep oceans represent an area the size of North America that remains unexplored, but too many people overlook this vast region as an exploration frontier in favor of space.

“There’s a perception that we’ve explored this planet, and that’s just simply wrong,” he said. “Somehow we managed to stumble into the 21st century thinking we’ve explored the entire world but having missed an entire continent.”

The lander and the bright green torpedo-shaped submersible that Cameron piloted to a depth of 35,376 feet in the western Pacific Ocean are both rated to a depth of 11 kilometers (36,089 feet). That means that “there isn’t one place in the entire volume of the ocean that you can’t go to now,” Cameron noted.

The Nierenberg Prize, awarded annually by Scripps, is named for William A. Nierenberg (1919-2000), a renowned national science leader who served Scripps Oceanography as director from 1965 to 1986. Past recipients have included Walter Cronkite, Jane Goodall, and Richard Dawkins.

More than 50 years stood between the first visit by humans to the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean near Guam, and Cameron’s. Pilots Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard took the bathyscaphe Trieste to a different part of the trench in 1960, a few years after Scripps research geologist Bob Fisher had helped determine the depth of the trench.

The primary accomplishment of Cameron’s dive, he said, is that at journey’s end, the submersible he piloted will have an interesting story behind it to impress the kids who come and see it, the people he relates to the most.

“Kids especially, they don’t question why you’d want to build a sub and send it to the bottom of the ocean. Of course you’d want to do that. It’s only adults who question that,” he said.

UCSD-TV will air Cameron’s Nierenberg Prize dialogue with Scripps Distinguished Professor of Geochemistry John Orcutt on Aug. 14, 2013.

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