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Ship switches from war to science

A U.S. Navy vessel has been transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to explore the ocean's depths.
The USNS Capable will be converted into a research vessel, bristling with high-tech sensors to explore the ocean.
The USNS Capable will be converted into a research vessel, bristling with high-tech sensors to explore the ocean.U.S. Navy

It started out listening for enemy submarines, once plied the oceans searching for drug traffickers and recently ran aircraft surveillance for ships gearing up for duty in the Iraq war.

Now the USNS Capable is getting ready for a new mission: to explore the depths of the oceans.

The Navy transferred the 224-foot vessel to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration on Monday in a ceremony on Lake Union.

The 15-year-old ship will stay here until it's sent to a shipyard to be fitted with high-tech sensors and equipment to send unmanned submersibles to the ocean floor, said Fred Gorell, a spokesman for NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration.

Focus on the oceans
It will be the first vessel devoted solely to the agency's ocean exploration branch, created about three years ago after a panel of experts recommended that the government sharpen its focus on studying the oceans.

"More is known today about the dark side of the moon than the bottom of our oceans," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA's administrator, said the Capable will advance scientists' understanding of everything from marine life and ocean dynamics to offshore oil and natural gas reserves.

"This is not just fun stuff to do. ... It's an extremely important economic value to our country," Lautenbacher said, noting that more than 2 million people depend on the oceans for work.

$18 million conversion
The Navy will spend about $18 million to convert the ship, saving roughly $500,000 by giving it away in what the military calls a "hot transfer" — going from one mission to another without having to be fully shut down, Gorell said.

The Capable arrived in Seattle on Friday after spending about two years near the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, where it scanned the skies for aircraft as ships prepared for deployment.

NOAA officials hope it can be converted within the next two years. The agency has yet to decide where it will be based, Gorell said.

Deep hulled and highly maneuverable, the Capable runs quietly, which made it perfect for surveillance and drug interdictions. Two years ago, the Navy's Military Sealift Command refitted it with an air defense radar, which will be dismantled during the conversion process.

New name sought
In addition to getting new sensors that will help it scan and map the ocean floor, the Capable will have onboard laboratories where scientists can run projects. It will be engineered to transmit real-time images and data collected during the trips so other scientists — even teachers and students — can see the research as it's happening.

It won't be called the Capable much longer. NOAA is presenting a nationwide contest for students in sixth through 12th grades to rename it.

The Capable is the seventh ship of its kind transferred from the Navy's Military Sealift Command to NOAA. The others have helped out with a range of missions, including hurricane research, marine mammal surveys and damage assessments after oil spills.