Return to Lost City, Live!

In a remarkable display of the cutting-edge in robotics, telepresence, and ocean exploration, live video is streaming over the Internet from under the Atlantic Ocean. The public, students, educators, and scientists can all follow along as the crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ship Ronald H. Brown use IFE Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. Lost City is a hot spring system discovered late in 2000. The site is marked by gigantic white carbon carbonate chimneys and an active ecosystem fed by hydrogen and methane.

Mission data including high definition video and images is being streamed from robotic submersibles to facilities onboard the Ronald H. Brown that then retransmit the data via satellite and Internet 2 to participating research sites located on land. This new approach to research and public outreach could reshape scientific exploration of the oceans and lands of Earth as well as the rest of the solar system. The NOAA Ocean Explorer website provides a wealth of information about the mission, including the live video feed.

This weekend the Ronald H. Brown stopped first above a site several kilometers west of Lost City and sent down the ROV Hercules. This site has never been seen by human eyes and was picked because it is millions of years older than the Lost City but may contain a record of similar hydrothermal activity in the past. The ROV worked for several hours, returning video and images of a desolate landscape strewn with rocks. An operator onboard the Ronald H. Brown used Hercules‘ robotic arm to collected several rock samples. The operation of mechanic and robotic devices by a human at a distance is called telepresence. Popularized in such movies as Titanic, telepresence allows tactile exploration of sites that are too dangerous for a human to be present in person.

After recovering the ROV and the samples collected, the Ronald H. Brown is currently on route to Lost City where it will spend several more days in round-the-clock exploration. Located on top of a mountain near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a depth of over 2,100 feet, Lost City differs from the more commonly known “black smokers” hot springs found along sites where the ocean floor is spreading apart. While these other hot springs systems are caused by active magma chambers underneath the oceanic crust heating up seawater, the Lost City hot springs system is created by a chemical reaction between a rock called peridotite and seawater. Peridotite makes up much of the Earth’s mantle layer located below the crust, but at the Lost City site this mantle material has been exposed nearer the planet’s surface. As the peridotite and seawater react, they give off heat, resulting in a hydrothermal system.

Hot fluids within this system are laden with calcium and magnesium. When the fluid hits the colder seawater at the ocean floor, a second reaction produces calcium carbonate and brucite. These minerals give the growing chimneys at Lost City their distinctive white and cream colors. The process has been happening for at least 30,000 years. One of the mission goals is to determine the age of the site.

Lost City was first explored extensively in 2003. While total biomass is much smaller than other hot spring systems, researchers discovered there is much more diversity of creatures making the site their home. This includes microscopic methanogens that consume hydrogen and produce methane, as well as other organisms that consume this methane. Several new species were discovered. During the Lost City 2005 mission, researchers will look for even more new species while they try to better understand the Lost City and its formations. The complete mission exploration phase will last 10 days. The mission is led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the discoverer of the RMS Titantic, and Dr. Deborah S. Kelley, the co-discoverer of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field.

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