NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is America’s first federally funded ship dedicated to ocean exploration and discovery. Missions of the 224-foot vessel include mapping, site characterization, reconnaissance, advancing technology, education, and outreach, all focused on deep-sea exploration.
Since the ship was commissioned in 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has traveled the globe, exploring everywhere from the Indonesian ‘Coral Triangle Region,” to benthic environments in the Galápagos and canyons and seamounts off the Northeast U.S. coast, furthering our knowledge of many previously unexplored areas and setting the stage for future in-depth exploration activities.
Deep Discoverer, the remotely operated vehicle dedicated to the Okeanos Explorer explores the Northeast U.S. Canyons during a 2013 expedition. Click image for larger view.
Okeanos Explorer is a hypotheses-generating ship, a ship of discovery. Following a discovery, the ship may stop and deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other sensors and systems. Together with shore-based exploration teams, scientists and technicians at sea may conduct preliminary additional investigations, developing enough data to provide an energized user community with justification for follow-on, hypotheses-based investigations. In this way, Okeanos Explorer is also a path-finding ship, creating a wake of discovery data for other scientists on other ships to conduct subsequent and more detailed investigations.
The ship comes with a variety of sensors and systems, including a modern, hull-mounted multibeam sonar for generating high-resolution maps of the seafloor and water column to 6,000 meters deep. These maps and data help explorers identify interesting features that warrant further investigation and can serve as guides for conducting visual surveys using ROVs.
Okeanos has two ROVs, attached by tethers and capable of operating to depths of 6,000 meters. The Seirios camera sled is suspended above the other ROV and serves to illuminate and image the surroundings. Suspended below Seirios is the Deep Discoverer ROV. Deep Discoverer carries a minimum of six underwater video cameras; a large array of the newest LED lighting technology; and an available sensor payload of over 400 pounds. Two seven-function hydraulic manipulators, a hydraulically actuated sensor platform, full-color sector scan sonar, and a fully integrated inertial navigation system are all standard capabilities of Deep Discoverer.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer's VSAT. VSAT stands for Very Small Aperture Terminal. VSATs are small Earth-based satellite dish arrays. On the ship, it is the VSAT that allows the real-time sharing of exploration data. Click image for larger view.
Okeanos Explorer uses a dynamic positioning system, a sort of automatic pilot that integrates satellite positioning data and meteorological data with the ship’s engines and thrusters, to remain on station when ROVs are deployed.
The ship carries cutting-edge technology that enables explorers at sea AND on shore to investigate the unknown and poorly understood ocean. This is possible to due to telepresence technology. When you look at the ship, one of its most visible features is the satellite dome atop its mast. This dome is part of a high-bandwidth satellite communications system capable of transmitting data through Internet2 connections to scientists on shore. The ship sends multibeam mapping data; data collected from ship sensors; and real-time, high-definition video feeds from ROVs at rates up to 20 Mb/s (megabytes per second) from the ship to the shore and up to 4 Mb/s from shore back to the ship. This capability is required to support full transmission of the high-definition video from both ROVs and from auxiliary cameras on the ship.
Audience members and event facilitators at the Silver Spring, Maryland, Exploration Command Center. Click image for credit and larger view.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is operated by the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and civilians as part of the fleet managed by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. Mission equipment is managed and operated by NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
While the ship has berthing for 46 (including crew and mission support staff), unlike many other ocean expeditions supported by NOAA, only up to three scientists participate onboard the ship and most of the scientists participating in Okeanos missions actually remain on shore. Via telepresence, live seafloor images and other data flow over satellite and high-speed Internet pathways to scientists standing watches at a series of Exploration Command Centers ashore...or at the comfort of their own desks. These scientists, and others on call if a discovery is made at sea, add their expertise to missions no matter where in the world the ship or scientists are located.
This telepresence technology also allows live seafloor video and interviews to be broadcast over standard Internet connections, bringing the excitement of ocean exploration and discoveries into classrooms, newsrooms, and homes—to anyone who has an Internet connection and a passion for learning about the ocean.
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