Barely a week since successfully completing sea trials after a three year hiatus, the venerable research sub Alvin is already earning back the $US42 million in hardware upgrades and engineering retrofits it's received -- showing off its spacious new three-crew cabin with a quick dive to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. But this is no pleasure cruise.
"Alvin is functionally a new vehicle," said Harvard University scientist Peter Girguis of the retrofitted sub. The $US42 million upgrades include automatic command and control functions, a higher battery capacity, high-definition cameras, and a new forward lateral thruster.
"I think the new command-and-control systems make it easier for pilots to manage the sub, so they can participate more in the dive, rather than just drive," said Susan Humphris, the WHOI scientist who supervised the upgrade. "The biggest advantage of the lateral thruster is that it enables Alvin to move sideways like a crab, saving valuable time in the sub. In the past, pilots had to back up and then go forward to move laterally."
Yesterday, Alvin set off for the 1000m depths of the Gulf of Mexico for a survey of the environment surrounding the Deep Horizon oil spill site. With the Gulf oil disaster's fourth anniversary quickly approaching, researchers from a number of local universities, led by Marine science professor Samantha "Mandy" Joye of the University of Georgia, are employing Alvin to conduct follow-up sampling surveys to see if the area has recovered at all since the 2010 blowout.
"In the dives in the submarine, we'll actually be able to see the diversity of animals on the bottom and compare this to what a natural soft bottom community would look like," Joye told The Sun Herald. "Our work is aimed at understanding the long-term impacts of the 2010 blowout and sites within 20 to 100 nautical miles of the wellhead."
While the Alvin is at sea, it will also be used by Kang Ding, a Senior Research Associate at the University of Minnesota, to collect prototype water pH sampling canisters that had been left near the region's numerous cold-water methane seeps. The now 50-year-old sub is expected to make more than two dozen dives during the current expedition, which will return to port on 22 April. Here's to hoping it survives another 50 years of work. [WHOI via SFGate - Wired]