Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
The MARS Ocean Observatory Testbed
History of the MARS observatory

The Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS) project originated with an earlier MBARI project, the Cabled Observatory of Monterey Bay (COMB). When the COMB project was approved in 1999, the project team started investigating what would be involved in designing and installing a cabled system in Monterey Bay. The following year, COMB fell under an MBARI ocean observing initiative—the Monterey Ocean Observing System (MOOS)—and it was decided that it would be better to develop a cabled observatory as a part of a community collaboration rather than MBARI developing its own system for internal use. This would achieve many objectives as it would (a) enhance community involvement, technology transfer, and use of the observatory system once operational, (b) reduce the demand on internal engineering time to design and build the system—as COMB fell under the MOOS program, which had a cap on its approved resources, realistically MOOS did not have the resources to pursue all the other planned developments  in addition to designing all of the complex systems needed for a cabled observatory (c) provide outside funding to develop and build the system, (d) reduce MBARI’s share of operational costs once built, and (e) provide a true test bed for many aspects of the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observing Initiative (OOI).

Map showing cable route to Smooth Ridge.
Map shows route of cable, from Moss Landing to 35 kilometers offshore to the node placed on Smooth Ridge.

At the start of the MOOS initiative observatory development, MBARI was a member of a project called NEPTUNE, along with the University of Washington (UW), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the Canadian Institute of Pacific Ocean Science and Technology. The ultimate goal of this project was to deploy a regional-scale cabled science observatory on the Juan De Fuca tectonic plate off the coasts of the state of Washington in the United States and the province of British Columbia in Canada. To establish the feasibility of a regional-scale cabled observatory, the project had to first demonstrate and test the necessary technologies. The high-power system was identified as one of the high-risk technical elements. Of all the many challenges of the MARS program, this would turn out to be the pacing item.

To demonstrate the technologies, the UW Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and JPL teamed to develop the power subsystems and were awarded grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP) to develop early designs and prototypes. WHOI was awarded a grant from the NSF to develop the Data and Communications System (DCS). These grants would fund feasibility studies and, in some cases, also fund benchtop demonstrations. But a question remained—what could be done to improve the chances of attracting major funding for the regional scale cabled observatory (known as NEPTUNE at that time)?  At a 2001 meeting of the members of the NEPTUNE Executive Council, MBARI President Marcia McNutt proposed that MBARI take the lead in submitting a proposal to the NSF to build a cabled observatory test bed in Monterey Bay that would incorporate the power and communications technologies being bench-tested at APL/JPL and WHOI. The NEPTUNE council agreed. However, the work being done at APL/JPL and WHOI only represented a portion of the full program and subsystems needed to implement a full cabled observatory system.

Other parts of the program included a shore cable landing, a cable installer, a shore facility, a high-power shore supply system, a node and trawl-resistant frame, high-power cable and fiber terminations, thermal-management systems, equipment chassis, a marine survey, biological surveys, and, last but not least, many, many environmental permits. It was decided to select an industrial partner to provide many of these missing elements. After an extensive selection process, L-3 MariPro Inc. and Alcatel-Lucent were selected.

Over a period of just a few months, the entire project plan and budget were developed, and a grant proposal was written and submitted to the NSF in March 2002. The grant proposal included a request for $7 million from the NSF, and provided matching funds of $1.8 million from the Packard Foundation and $1.2 million from the Canadian partners, for a total of $10 million. In Sept 2002, MBARI was informed that the grant had been approved.

Challenges were not slow in arriving. Three unexpected events changed the project dramatically during the short time that the grant was being reviewed by the NSF. Due to tightening security following September 11th, 2001, the U.S. Coast Guard prevented the use of an abandoned fuel/oil pipeline for the cable shore landing, because it ran right next to the power plant cooling water intakes. (These were deemed a possible terrorist target.) This meant that an alternative method was needed to bring the cable ashore through a number of significant obstacles including a very active shoreline with shifting sands, high surf, and the mouth of the submarine canyon itself. The standard industry practice for cable landings is to drill from shore using a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) machine to install a 5-inch diameter steel pipe. This became the new cable landing approach.

The second challenge involved the local marine sanctuary. Prior to submitting the grant proposal, discussions with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) indicated that MARS would only require an environmental assessment with a likely “negative declaration.”  Essentially, this meant that the permitting would be relatively straightforward. However, during the period when the grant proposal was being reviewed at the NSF, Tyco International was installing a telecommunications cable for a customer in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. At one of the turns in the cable installation, the cable that was supposed to be buried in a trench was actually lying on the ocean floor, tens of meters to the side of the empty trench. Unfortunately, the owner of the cable went bankrupt before the sanctuary could insist on the remedy of the installation. Consequently, NOAA headquarters in Washington (which oversees the National Marine Sanctuary program) reacted by prohibiting all future cable installations in marine sanctuaries. The MBNMS superintendent successfully fought to enable our Monterey Bay installation to proceed. An unfortunate consequence, though, was a new NOAA requirement for the MARS project to undergo one of the most demanding, expensive permitting processes in the history of cable installations, involving 24 months, $1 million, and 16 permits from 16 different federal, state, and county agencies. After hearing what MBARI had gone through, one commercial cable installer said that MARS was likely to be the last cable to ever land in California, and that all of the cable industry were now looking to land cables further north to avoid having to endure what MBARI had to go through. Fortunately, by March 2005, all of the permits were in hand.

Both the horizontally drilled shore landing and the permitting were outside the scope of the originally proposed project, so the NSF provided $2 million in grant supplements to cover the additional costs.

The third challenge was financial. On receiving the grant award, MBARI prepared a contract for our industrial partner to perform its part of the program as assigned in the proposal. While preparing the contracts, the partner proposed performing the work on a cost-reimbursable basis only, and if they ran out of funds, would stop work. This was too great a financial risk for MBARI to take on as this represented over $6 million of work with complicated interfaces to subsystems that were being designed by other institutions. To minimize this risk, MBARI set about getting as much of the work as possible performed under fixed-price contracts and looked for other cost saving measures. Eventually the project stayed within the budget by a combination of purchasing surplus telecommunications cables at 50 percent of the original cost, contracting with Alcatel for the design of the high-power cable termination assemblies (CTA), and contracting with Alcatel directly for the cable installation.

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Last updated: Oct. 07, 2009