Only Robots Can Visit Deep-Sea Vents. Now You Can—In Glorious VR!
The promise of virtual reality is that it can transport you to places you’d prefer not to go: the tops of the highest mountains, for instance, or the mosh pit of Norwegian party metal concert. Then there are the impossible places, like the roiling vents at the bottom of the deepest oceans, where crushing pressures and searing heat make an environment fit only for robots.
In March, one of those robots, the straightforwardly-named Remotely Operated Vehicle for Ocean Sciences, spent a staggering 150 hours exploring an undersea volcano near Samoa. Not only were researchers from the Schmidt Ocean Institute able to capture VR video and upload it to YouTube so regular folk can explore the action themselves (check it out below), but they 3-D mapped a so-called black smoker vent so scientists around the world can study the phenomenon independently.
But this wasn’t all an exercise in delayed gratification. On the research vessel (named Falkor), the researchers used the ROV’s mapping data to plan out their precious time—after all, operations can run tens of thousands of dollars a day, and the robot can only carry so much material back to the surface. “We sat down and decided, OK, we want to take only the most exciting, the most telling, the most important samples, which are laid out in front of us through this map,” says Tom Kwasnitschka, the expedition’s chief scientist.
In the long term, the map will serve as a 3-D snapshot. Should the team return to the vent and map it again, they can see how the black smoker has morphed over time.
That’s particularly important because scientists aren’t the only ones eyeballing these formations. Deep-sea mining outfits are itching to exploit black smokers, which are loaded with precious metals like copper, as well as the elusive rare earth metals that gadget manufacturers rely on. As water pours into the seafloor, underlying magma heats it up, infusing it with metals. That water pours out of the black smoker and accumulates as a precipitate. “This precipitate builds up pretty much the same way as if you chose not to clean your bathtub for three years,” says Kwasnitschka. And voila, a veritable factory for precious resources.
The thing is, these things are still largely mysterious, both geologically and ecologically. “The question is whether deep-sea hydrothermal systems should not be mined under any circumstances,” says Kwasnitschka. “Or whether, ‘Oh you know, they die anyway, the animals die anyway, and others will open up and it’s OK to mine them.’ Nobody knows whether this is true or not.”
But as robots bring up more and more data from the depths, scientists will build a clearer picture of this most mysterious of ecosystems. For the rest of us, we can dive right into a VR underwater world. More enchanting than a Norwegian party metal concert, if you ask me.