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News on underwater finds to travel faster

Undersea explorer Robert Ballard leans back and smiles at the screens arrayed above his desk. One displays a view of a remote operating vessel, another scans along a seafloor never before viewed by humans.
New communications system being tested for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can immediately inform scientists on land about an underwater find. Ancient amphorae, shown here, was discovered in the Black Sea off the coast of Turkey at a depth of approximately 340 meters.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Undersea explorer Robert Ballard leans back and smiles at the screens arrayed above his desk. One displays a view of a remote operating vessel, another scans along a seafloor never before viewed by humans.

It's the Black Sea, not far from Ukraine, a region long closed to outsiders and now yielding a treasure trove of Byzantine vessels that met their ends 1,000 or more years ago.

For Ballard the archaeologist, those vessels and their contents are a delight.

For Ballard the explorer, the modern technology he's testing for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is pretty exciting, too.

Thanks to the massive speed of modern communications, talking to him from a desk in Silver Spring, Md., while he is aboard the research vessel Alliance in the Black Sea is almost as simple as talking to him in person.

And that's the idea.

Ballard is testing a system planned for use aboard NOAA's new vessel Okeanos Explorer, scheduled to go to sea next year as the first U.S. government vessel dedicated to exploring unknown parts of the ocean.

"Its mission, literally, is to go where no one has gone before on planet Earth," Ballard said.

"That means that the exploration could encounter a biological discovery, a geological discovery, hopefully for many of us an archaeological discovery. So there is no way of knowing in advance what the discovery is going to be," he said.

The plan is to have dozens or hundreds of scientists participate without ever having to leave their homes and universities.

The ship will be in high-speed communications with a center at the University of Rhode Island, and from there via Internet2 to universities and science centers across the country, calling on whatever expertise is needed.

Ballard likens it to a hospital emergency room.

"An emergency room has no idea what the ambulance is going to deliver at 3 o'clock Sunday morning," he explained. "They don't know if it's going to be a head injury, a mother having a baby, a heart attack or whatever," so the hospital has a system for doctors to be on call.

"Now we're doing the same sort of thing in support of NOAA," he said.

The center in Rhode Island will operate like the NASA space center in Houston, which is constantly in contact with the astronauts in outer space, just as Rhode Island will be with the aquanauts in inner space.

Above Ballard's head, the underwater camera continues to move across the seafloor, passing mainly stones and sand and, suddenly, a series of straight lines and right angles.

Those most likely mark a wreck, the remains of some ancient vessel the explorers will turn and scan again.

Unlike other oceans, the deepest parts of the Black Sea contain no dissolved oxygen, so there are no sea worms to devour the wood of ancient vessels.

Off the coast of Turkey, Ballard said he has found a sunken Byzantine vessel so complete that even the 1,000-year-old masts still rise upward. Wreck sites are littered with containers once used for wine, oil, honey and other trade goods.

That's the kind of thing he looks for, underwater archaeology.

But what if he finds some unknown new creature, or strange bit of geology beneath the sea?

That's where the new communication system comes in.

"Scientifically, some of the remote expeditions would have benefited by having more experts on board and this is a way to get more experts," said Steve Gittings, scientific coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program.

For example, he said, when researchers discovered hot-water vents deep in the ocean they had to mount additional trips to bring in experts to study the surprising worms and other life that existed in total darkness around the vents.

Now, with high speed communications, researchers would be called in to study high-definition images in real time.

Also, Gittings said, the system will be beneficial for education programs.

In the past, educational efforts were mounted after scientists returned, perhaps months after they completed a voyage. With the new system, students and teachers will be able to watch research as it happens.