Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

The MARS Ocean Observatory Testbed

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it called MARS?
MARS stands for Monterey Accelerated Research System. The "accelerated" part refers to the observatory's role as a testbed for new instruments that will speed the pace of scientific discovery and let scientists learn about the ocean in completely new ways. Any connection with the red planet is entirely coincidental.

How deep is the MARS observatory?
The MARS science node sits on the seafloor at a depth of 891 meters (2,923 feet), on a broad, muddy platform called Smooth Ridge. Monterey Canyon runs along the south flank of Smooth Ridge, about 4 km (2.4 miles) from the observatory. The floor of Monterey Canyon in this area descends from 2,000 to 2,500 meters (6,500 to 8,200 feet) deep.

Why don't you put MARS in the bottom of Monterey Canyon?
Monterey Canyon is not a tranquil place. The sides are continually eroding, sending torrents of rock and sand hurtling down the canyon. Past landslides have buried equipment under tons of debris, or swept them away completely. Much as scientists would like to learn about the deep canyon, it simply isn't a good place to install $12 million worth of equipment.

How did you choose the location for MARS?
The MARS site on Smooth Ridge was selected because it lies in deep water, is geologically stable, presents a variety of opportunities for deep-ocean research, and is relatively close to shore. Few places in the world other than Monterey Bay have such deep water within a 2- to 3-hour boat ride of shore. With MBARI located less than 35 km (20 miles) from the MARS site, ships can visit the observatory and surrounding deep water on a day trip instead of a week-long voyage.

Did you have to get a permit to build MARS?
Yes. MBARI obtained 16 separate permits from federal, state, and local authorities to install the main science node. Monterey Bay lies in the heart of a national marine sanctuary whose primary concern is protecting the wild nature of central California waters. MBARI scientists and engineers plan their activities to minimize effects on our waters and seafloor.

How much power does MARS get? AC or DC?
The main MARS node receives 10 kilowatts (kW) of power from shore at 10,000 volts. The node converts this to 375 volts DC (VDC) and 48 VDC for science use. A total of 9 kW can be distributed as needed to the eight science ports. Up to 1 kW of the 9 kW total can be distributed to the 8 science ports at 48 VDC.

How do you connect instruments to MARS? How do the plugs stay dry?
Installation is done by remote control: no one has to get wet. The ROV Ventana, a remote-controlled submarine, will string cable from the MARS node to each instrument, then use its robotic arm to plug special connectors into waterproof and pressure-tolerant sockets known as "wet-matable connectors."

Does the science node move around?
The MARS science node does not move; it simply serves as a power and data hub to the observatory's science instruments. Of the first five instruments scheduled to be connected, two move: The benthic rover creeps across the seafloor at about 5 m (16 feet) every three days. The ALOHA mooring contains a sensor that climbs and descends a 0.8-km-long (0.5-mile) cable several times per day.

Is MARS going to help with global warming?
Just learning more about how the ocean works will help scientists understand global climate change better. The oceans work in tandem with the atmosphere in a partnership that moves heat around the globe. Our planet has so much water – and comparatively little land – that the oceans have a huge effect on climate.

Specific MARS projects will help understand parts of the climate change puzzle.

The benthic rover will collect data about carbon and carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, on the seafloor. The ability of the deep ocean to store carbon dioxide is one of the main question marks in models of how much the Earth's climate will change.

What does "benthic" mean?
Benthic means the bottom of the ocean. It doesn't necessarily mean "deep," since the ocean has many depths. So "benthic organisms" are ones that live on or in the seafloor, and a benthic rover is a vehicle that creeps across the seafloor to study them.

What is bioluminescence?
Bioluminescence is light made by living organisms. Fireflies are one familiar example, but bioluminescence is far more common in the ocean. Dr. Edith Widder will use the Eye-in-the-Sea to study bioluminescence at MARS.

Last updated: Oct. 08, 2009