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Sea Orbiter: Ocean research on a Swimming Island

This astounding research vessel that floats with ocean's current is due to set sail in the next few years. It is a project with which the people of the 21st century should help to save their world, but also to conquer space.

The research vessel Sea Orbiter will for the most part drift with the current under water through the sea
Picture by Sea Orbiter

The sea, the great and beautiful unknown! Rarely has it been as clear as it is to us humans today through real natural catastrophes and films how much we depend upon the function of this gigantic ecosystem that is made up by the oceans. What is even more astounding is that through coastal diving and deep-sea robots man has up till now not even explored 1 percent of this "great mass of water" that covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

In the 60s, great underwater scientists like Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass attempted, in the truest sense of the word, to "fathom" the secrets of the sea. The result was the impressive underwater research villages such as "Conshell 2" in the Red Sea, in which divers lived for weeks under difficult conditions and high water pressure and made startling discoveries about their thitherto-strange living environment. But even NASA used and still uses underwater bases like "Sealab" and "Aquarius" off the coast of Florida to prepare their astronauts for the difficult, often nightmarish conditions in outer space. The divers remained there for up to 12 days at a depth of 16 metres and upon resurfacing had to remain in a decompression chamber for 48 hours, in order to get the body used to the low external pressure on the surface again.

It is a stroke of luck that space scientists and marine biologists can use a very similar work environment and it is through this piece of luck that made it possible for the exceptional exploratory ship "Seaorbiter" to be developed in just 3 years: part under water, part on the surface, the swimming research station will flow the currents and orbit the oceans of our planet at the pace of the sea dwellers. Ten men work "on deck", whilst 8 so-called Aquanauts live and experiment under water. What is particularly exceptional, that distinguishes Seaorbiter from all other research vessels, is that anyone living above who wants to descend into the depths must first go through a pressure sluice and acclimatise themselves, because the pressure at the corresponding sea depth in the realm of the Aquanauts prevails (1.5 to 2 bar) to such an extent that they can come and go in the open sea at any time without having to acclimatize or needing decompression.

In the framework of their special project NEEMO, NASA is planning stays of up to six months in length in this underwater habitat, in order to simulate the planned, manned voyage to Mars: below deck in the Seaorbiter, it is not as easy, like it is in other simulations, for the astronauts to escape in panic situations, nor to use their minds for reassurance that in the real thing this would be possible at all times. "And the swirling open ocean", according to Ariel Fuchs, Seaorbiter spokesperson, "with thousands of metres of contourless, black water reaching as far as the sea bed is also very realistic."

The Frenchman Jacques Rougerie brought the Sea Orbiter into being, thus creating one of the biggest climate research projects to date
Picture by Sea Orbiter

The unique vehicle developed by the French boat and submarine designer Jacques Rougerie, with the help of sea biologists, climate researchers and former astronauts, will cost 35 million euros. It is a lot of money, currently being collected through donations and sponsors, but, as Ariel Fuchs points out in an interview: "Not really very much, if we consider that today a large cruise ship guzzles 120 million euros and a modern science museum, in which children learn as much as possible through practice, comes to 30 million."

Ariel Fuchs: "In conclusion, close to the pulse of the sea, Seaorbiter should not only discover new life under water, but also unlock the secrets of the complicated movements in the Golf stream 24 hours a day through sensors and investigate climate change. One just as important part of the mission is to bring the fascination of our earth closer to the wider public. France's Jacques Cousteau and also Austria's Hans Hass have laid it before us. They are the intellectual fathers, who showed how to enthuse a large public for sea research. And enthusiasm leads to people becoming dedicated to something and learning to protect it on their own incentive."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (14-05-06) – Contact