Famed submersible gets a replacement

WASHINGTON – A new deep-sea research vessel will be able to carry people to 99 percent of the ocean floor, diving deeper than the famed Alvin that pioneered the study of seafloor vents, plate tectonics and deep ocean creatures over the past 40 years.

The new American submersible will provide the tools to reach “not for the stars but for the depths,” Robert Gagosian, president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said Friday at a briefing at the National Science Foundation.

France, Russia and Japan also operate deep sea research vessels and China is building one, officials said. The new ship will have similar capabilities.

It will dive thousands of feet deeper than Alvin, carry more scientific instruments, communicate more quickly and stay down longer.

Alvin “has been a trusted trouper for four decades and a good friend, but science advances and so does technology,” said Arden Bement, acting director of NSF.

Design for the Alvin Replacement Vessel is under way, with launch expected in 2008, officials said.

The vessel is expected to be able to descend more than 21,000 feet into the ocean. Alvin dives to just short of 15,000 feet. The new capability will still remain short of the deepest spot in the oceans, more than 36,000 feet in the Mariana Trench.

Only the bathyscaphe Trieste – in 1960 – has carried people to that depth, taking just two people there, a fraction of the 12 who have walked on the moon.

The new vessel is expected to cost $21.6 million, paid for by the National Science Foundation, with additional funding from Woods Hole for instruments, lighting and sensors. It will operate from the research vessel Atlantis, the same ship that now tends Alvin. Operating costs are expected to be similar to the current approximately $22,000-a-day for the Atlantis plus $10,000-a-day for the deep diving vessel.

Dan Fornari of Woods Hole said there also are plans for a remotely operated vessel to explore the ocean’s deepest trenches to study the methane hydrate there as a possible energy source, the exchange of fluids between the sea and the Earth’s mantle and the creatures that live in those lightless depths.

Officials said the new vessel’s name has not been selected, although an artist-drawing of the planned design carried the name Alvin.

The name Alvin was bestowed whimsically by scientists amused by a popular song featuring a singing chipmunk. Some have suggested the new vessel be named for one of that chipmunk’s companions, Simon or Theodore.

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