It’s being called a starship Enterprise for the water, and not merely for its futuristic shape. SeaOrbiter, designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie, is envisioned as a high-tech moving laboratory, carrying scientists on long treks through an environment not inherently friendly to human life.
At the moment, the craft is still on the drawing board. Construction is planned to begin later this year, and if funding allows, to be completed in 2016. Initial funding has been provided by the French government, several companies, and a crowd-funding campaign.
When operational, the craft is intended to be a sort of Swiss Army knife of aquatic research. Designers say it will hunt for underwater archaeological remains and new life forms, investigate ocean chemistry, and map vast swathes of the ocean floor while providing unprecedented capability for sending aquanauts continually on deep dives.
But its concepts borrow heavily from a different kind of exploration in recent human history: space exploration. And though it may physically resemble the Enterprise, there’s a more useful comparison closer to home in the International Space Station (ISS). Like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will advance basic science. Like the ISS, technology developed for the ship will improve everyday technology here on land. And finally, like the ISS, SeaOrbiter will allow humans to live long-term in an environment never before possible – effectively expanding human colonization to new places.
Science, the Prime Directive
The ISS may get most attention these days for the photos and videos its astronauts tweet, but behind the scenes the platform has been turning out hundreds of research projects. Taking advantage of the weightlessness, there’s bone research on laboratory animals that’s helping us to understand the mechanisms underlying osteoporosis (loss of bone mineral) and to develop means to prevent it. Weightlessness is also being utilized to study the production of new nanomaterials, which have different properties when formed in microgravity.
The ISS also serves as a platform from which to better see its surroundings. From the space station researchers are imaging bodies of water to assess impacts of global warming, and using the alpha magnetic spectrometer to investigate elusive dark matter.
Likewise, the plan for research on SeaOrbiter is equally impressive, and will allow for questions to be answered that have not before been possible. That will in part be enabled by the design of the ship, which will allow researchers to dive deeper and more often than traditional vessels.
Crewmembers living at normal atmospheric pressure can dive to about 50 meters. Because of the risk of decompression illness (DCI), however, deeper exploration involves an approach called saturation diving, in which aquanauts spend a great deal of time in hyperbaric (high pressure) chambers. SeaOrbiter, by contrast, will have an entire bottom deck at hyperbaric pressure, with living space and comforts comparable to the rest of the ship.
This feature will enable the same people to go on deep dives day after day, to a depth of 100 meters. Departing and returning through a diving bay at the underside of SeaOribiter’s saucer section, saturation dives will be independent of ocean surface conditions, such as weather and daylight vs. darkness. Thus, there will be no obstacles against exploration at night, a critical period when unknown nocturnal life forms are thought to rise up from much lower depths.
The hyperbaric deck will also function as a laboratory for physiology studies, for instance, studying gas bubbles throughout the body to improve diving technology, and biology studies, such as studying life forms brought up from the deep.
Brimming With Technology
The ISS famously has had a hand in developing lots of technologies we use on a daily basis here on Earth: from simple things like Velcro on your kindergartener’s sneakers, to elaborate technologies such as robotic surgery advances made possible by the development of the ISS’s robotic arm.
Similarly, technology planned for SeaOrbiter could have myriad applications elsewhere. SeaOrbiter will be a platform for new robot technology in the form of mini-submarines: one carrying two aquanauts, and the other two entirely robotic. These devices combine several of the latest technologies. Able to reach a depth of 1,000 meters, the piloted sub and the larger robotic vehicle will be equipped with the most advanced robot arms and imaging equipment available. The other robot device is a drone, able to reach 6,000 meters, and both robot devices can serve as prototypes for others in the future.
Then, there is the vessel itself. Seeing that SeaOrbiter is taller than it is long, the natural impulse is to imagine it would just topple over, but it’s actually more stable than standard ships. That’s because the large saucer section and the keel below it are denser than water. But they won’t sink because everything above the saucer will be extremely light and buoyant. Most of the mass of the ship, therefore, will be permanently underwater; its force in opposition to the floating force will make the craft nearly impossible to tip, even in the most severe storm. This novel design could potentially be applied to future ships – e.g., a cruise ship with much of its passenger space below the waterline. Then there is the military, where the latest trend is to keep large parts of surface ships below the water line to make the ship less visible to radar – e.g., the US Navy’s Zumwalt Class destroyers.
Aspects of SeaOrbiter‘s propulsion system can also carry over to non-research vessels. The system is green, because it uses solar and wind energy to power highly efficient electric engines, and designers may also add biofuel to the mix. At a time when society is on the brink of electric- and hydrogen-powered land vehicles, and when alternatives to fossil fuels are on the radar even for jet aircraft, ships (other than sailboats and nuclear-powered naval craft) still carry an old-fashioned heavy carbon footprint. But perhaps SeaOrbiter propulsion can serve as a prototype for a new, pollution-free age of sea travel.
A Laboratory Away from Home
Finally, like ISS, one of the most useful features of SeaOrbiter will be its homey quality. By providing its scientists a comfortable home away from home, along with laboratories, Rougerie and his team are promising a 24/7 science capability that is unprecedented at sea.
The ISS has used the same proximity to its study environment to keep experiments running that would otherwise have to be returned to Earth, for samples or reagents to be replaced. In the case of SeaOrbiter, marine biologists and chemists will be able to spend a few days collecting samples via dive or mini-sub, then do their laboratory work, analyze their data, and write their manuscripts and submit them to journals, even as the ship travels to its next exploration zone.
As for the specific research plan, some of it is left for scientists to propose and define based on the vessel’s advertised capabilities. Just as the ship’s media capabilities could lead to some educational outreach activities beyond what’s anticipated already, the science may also evolve in a similar manner. But some of the big missions are outlined already. In terms of undersea archaeology, for instance, there is a specific mission plan to circumnavigate the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, continuously scanning the seafloor for sunken civilizations and ancient ships. For the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a plan to map 10,000 submarine mountains that are thought to exist. Along the way, they crew will be on constant lookout for previously unseen life forms and studying sea chemistry.
How could one little vessel achieve all of this? If you’re not blown away already, hold onto your seat. Even as the novel vessel awaits construction, Rougerie’s team is developing plans for additional ships to “increase the fleet and sail a vessel in every ocean.” Each vessel would cover its region and carry visiting scientists investigating issues particular to that part of the planet.
We’re talking about a fleet of these advanced semi-submersibles. That is some trek. Maybe those ocean currents really will take us where no one has gone before.