US, Indonesia combine for high-tech adventure to one of earth's last frontiers: The deep sea

WASHINGTON (AP) — A deep-sea expedition by the United States and Indonesia sets off this week to explore one of the world's last frontiers, an adventure that researchers hope could lead to cures for diseases and help in predicting deadly tsunamis.

Scientists portray the trip to Indonesian waters as a throwback to a time when explorers blazed new trails into unknown territory.

The expedition, which is set to begin Thursday and wrap up in early August, is the maiden voyage for a high-tech U.S. science ship and the first joint deep-sea exploration by Indonesia and the United States.

Scientists will use a powerful sonar mapping system and a robotic vehicle equipped with high-definition video cameras to explore hundreds of square miles north of the Indonesian archipelago, providing an extraordinary glimpse of one of the globe's most diverse, complex and little-known marine ecosystems.

"The world's oceans are great mysteries to us, but there are few greater mysteries than this area in Indonesia that we're going to be exploring," Craig McLean, who oversees oceanic exploration for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview.

Indeed, while a dozen men have been to the moon and back, only two have explored the deepest ocean and returned to tell the tale. This voyage won't be adding to that list; an unmanned, remote-controlled vessel will be exploring the deep sea.

Probing the ocean's depths is a potentially dangerous affair, with only a small number of countries and research centers investing in the effort. NOAA takes part in several international missions a year, but officials describe this one as its most complex.

A major goal is to create a high-resolution map of the ocean floor that will help scientists better understand how tsunamis form and make more accurate models to forecast the earthquake-spawned waves in the future. The region straddles a series of fault lines, making it very seismically active. In 2004, an earthquake off western Indonesia triggered tsunamis that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

Indonesia's Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries Fadel Muhammad said scientists also want to explore ecosystems living around underwater volcanos, some of which remain active.

Oceans cover about 70 percent of the earth's surface, but little is known about the sea floor. And not just remote parts of the Pacific; U.S. officials say they've only mapped a small part of the exclusive economic zone that extends into waters off the American shore.

"There actually is a reasonable degree of artistic fiction included in most world maps that portray the ocean," McLean said. "Our job, among many, is to fill in those blanks."

The exploration might even point the way to cures for human diseases. Though the mission is not primarily designed to snap up thousands of samples of plants and sea animals, Indonesian scientists will collect specimens that could have medicinal qualities, such as attacking harmful bacteria or fighting the spread of cancer cells. An example of such a compound is discodermolide, a potential cancer drug extracted from a deep-water sponge.

Scientists from both countries say this venture is mostly about exploration, meaning they will allow their curiosity to guide them.

The United States will send scientists and a converted U.S. Navy ship, the Okeanos Explorer, to Indonesian waters. Indonesia's contribution is a research vessel, the Baruna Jaya IV, which will collect specimens that, together with all rights for future use, will remain in the country. The United States hopes to join in collections at a future date.

The Okeanos comes equipped with a multi-beam sonar mapping system that can generate high-resolution, wide-angle images in very deep water.

It also has a remote-controlled robotic vehicle, about as big as a small sports utility vehicle, that's attached to the ship by a cable and capable of operating at depths more than twice the mile-deep oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It has chemical sensors, movable arms, high-definition video cameras and a strong lighting system. Images will be transmitted to the ship by fiber-optic cables, beamed to a satellite and then sent to scientists on shore.

John McDonough, deputy director of the NOAA office of ocean exploration and research, said these scientists can contribute to the expedition by asking the pilot on the ship steering the robotic vehicle to pursue whatever strikes their fancy.

"The real objective here is to find something of interest that the science communities will want to come back to," McDonough said. "It's really establishing a sense of place."


Associated Press writers Robin McDowell in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Randolph E. Schmid in Washington contributed to this story.