Illumination from the sea floor

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For many thousands of people living near Mount Etna, observing activity could mean the difference between life and death. Tectonic activity can be an indicator of pressure or magma build up or impending sudden plate shift. Much is known about tectonic movement on the earth’s surface but with two thirds of the planet covered by water, knowing about tectonic movement under the waves will augment our understanding of earthquakes and volcanic activity

Research at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea has the potential of saving lives in many ways. The particular oceanographic conditions off the coast of Sicily is home to special ocean life that is already providing a source of antibiotics and possible cancer fighting properties are also being researched.

The Geostar project, the Geophysical Oceanographic Station for Abyssal Research, was a European project with a goal of gathering as much detailed information about the Earth’s surface under the water as was available above the waves. This Geostar underwater laboratory housed a host of monitors and instruments designed to collect a range of data and to report it back to the surface.


The Geostar underwater laboratory


Controlled shuttle launch to the seabed

To launch the underwater laboratory, a shuttle, or Modus, lowered Geostar to the sea floor in a descent taking five hours. The shuttle was used regularly to move the laboratory and to collect data – positioning instrumentation stations at extreme depths and then recovering them again when their mission was complete. Yet operating the Modus at such depths was not without its challenges. At 4000 metres below the surface with enormous pressures, high salinity and utter darkness, the world is a hostile place. Such depths also require a system that can handle long cables and heavy loads.

The Modus and Geostar were lowered to the sea floor using equipment from MacArtney - a Cormac ROV winch and 4500 metres of cable. Cameras and lights positioned on the shuttle and sonar images transferred through a telemetric link gave operators the visual assistance they needed to guide it precisely into position to dock with the laboratory and were critical to ensuring safe operations 4 kilometres from the surface.

This telemetric link was made possible by MacArtney’s multiplexer system, the NEXUS MKI, which assimilated the information from the cameras and sonar through a subsea unit and sent the information up through the cable to the topside unit. There the information – 4 parallel video images and sonar information – was presented on computer screens on the vessel above. Monitoring from the support vessel allowed the Geostar laboratory to be serviced and moved remotely, eliminating the need to retrieve and re-launch.

MacArtney multiplexer system                          Operation room controlling the Geostar laboratory


Supporting research to save lives
The long term series of observations provided by the Geostar platform have provided researchers and scientists with a wealth of information not previously available at such depths over such periods of time. The success of these visionary and advanced projects is supported by a range of sophisticated and reliable support systems and hardware. Their combined goal is to provide decades of data as high in quality under the water as is available on land. This data could potentially save lives both from physical dangers from the planet Earth in the form of earthquakes and volcano eruptions and by using the healing powers of the life forms that live upon it under the waves.