If you want to do deep sea ocean research today, you'll have to take a journey to the Florida Keys, where the world's last remaining underwater research lab, the Aquarius, is housed.
But that's soon about to change. When it's completed, the SeaOrbiter, a spaceship-like underwater vessel, will become the first ocean lab where researchers can live 24/7 over long periods of time. (The Aquarius, in comparison, goes on missions for 10 days on average.) It's the Starship Enterprise of the sea, exploring parts of the ocean where no man has gone before.
The $43 million SeaOrbiter project is the result of a 30-year research and design process. Created by sea architect Jacques Rougerie and guided by experts like Jean-Michel Cousteau and former NASA chief Daniel Goldin, the vessel will hold a crew of up to 22 people when it launches. Its first trip will be to Monaco, where Rougerie hopes that researchers will gather new details about the vast underwater areas surrounding the country.
He writes in an email: "The SeaOrbiter is the synthesis of everything that we have been able to do at sea: it is at the same time a moving habitat and a dynamic launching point for submarine research and exploration. It will not replace oceanographic boats or exploratory submarines. Instead, it’s another way to explore and better comprehend the underwater universe and bring human life at sea to another level on a 24/7 basis and over long periods."
Though researchers onboard will likely spend most of their time underwater, you couldn't possibly miss the SeaOrbiter if you passed by it in the ocean. About 90 feet of the 190-foot structure will tower above the waterline. The vessel drifts with currents, relying on renewable energy from the sun, waves, and wind for power. Like astronauts, the sea explorers aboard the SeaOrbiter need to be "physically fit and well-equipped for spontaneous exploration missions," according to Rougerie.
The SeaOrbiter is the first vessel that allows the crew to leave the boat from under the water's surface to explore the ocean, without taking into account the quality of the sea surface (this is because the underwater part of the vessel is stable enough to house the crew). It was built with what Rougerie calls a "new generation of recyclable aluminum" that's used in the aeronautics industry.
The project is currently crowdfunding 325,000 euros so it can begin construction in France in the Spring of 2014. So far, it has raised 44,000 euros with more than two months to go. If all goes well, construction will finish by the end of 2015, and the first underwater expedition will begin in spring 2016.