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Joint projects see ocean science aiming high

Think big: those studying seafloor features are hoping to emulate the scope of NASA's projects. Credit: P. RONA/OAR/NURP/NOAA

When former US President John F. Kennedy helped to launch the age of space exploration, he predicted that space would be the new ocean. But 40 years on, it is ocean scientists who are looking to space for the technologies and methodologies to fuel their own new age.

Despite some obvious crossovers between space and ocean sciences, the collaborations have never really met their full potential, says Craig McLean, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration. But that is now starting to change.

Space scientists, for example, are aching to search for life in aquatic environments beyond Earth, such as Jupiter's moon Europa. Oceanographers can offer some of the tools for this research, and would in return benefit from space funding both to improve these instruments and to develop new equipment. And space scientists know that the oceans are an ideal testbed for tools, such as sensors, needed for their projects.

Last month at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Mclean's office and NASA's oceanography programme co-sponsored a meeting called the Link Symposium, to foster such collaborations.

Many of the discussions at the meeting addressed shared needs for new technologies, such as better and smaller mass spectrometers that could serve a variety of purposes on both underwater vehicles and space probes.

Some such partnerships already exist. Ocean engineers, for example, have worked with their space counterparts to design vehicles to explore Europa's ocean. The two fields have also cooperated on the development and testing of sensor webs, networks of electronics pods that can be fitted with a variety of sensors. “I think right now we are on the front end of this collaboration, which I am very confident will bear fruit,” says McLean.

But the tendency of the two fields to think and operate on different scales presents a barrier to collaboration, says Eric Lindstrom, head of NASA's oceanography programme. “They don't speak the same language,” he says. Space scientists tend to start with a long-term goal and then build what is needed, from scratch if necessary. Far smaller budgets have obliged oceanographers to strive for more incremental advances.

Some oceanographers hope to break this mould. For instance, Project Neptune is an ambitious plan led by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle to wire an entire seafloor tectonic plate with sensors and equipment to monitor its geology, biology and chemistry.

At a cost of around $250 million, the project, if it gets funded, would be comparable in scale to a typical NASA mission — making it the largest ocean-science project ever. Partly because of Neptune's similarities to space projects, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is a partner in the project.

“Enormous changes have to go on in evolving from individual principal-investigator science to big science,” says James Bellingham, director of engineering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, and a coordinator of the Florida meeting.

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