Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Celebrating our 20th Anniversary

A revolutionary deep-sea observatory

Celebrating 20 years

The Monterey Accelerated Research System  will serve as an engineering, science, and education test bed for even more extensive ocean observatories in the U.S. and Canada. Image: David Fierstein (c) 2005 MBARI

Computer networks and power grids are common enough on land, but until recently were rare undersea. MBARI is in the process of building such a network thousands of feet beneath the sea, with the design and installation of the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS). When completed, MARS will provide ocean scientists with 24-hour-a-day access to instruments and experiments in the deep sea. Instead of using submarines to carry researchers into the deep, the MARS observatory will use the latest computer and internet technology to bring information about the deep sea directly to researchers' computers on shore. MARS will serve as a testbed for the ocean science community to test instruments and methods for use on observatories.

MARS will consist of undersea cables and docking stations providing power and high-speed data links for a variety of oceanographic devices. The system will begin at shore, then extend out to sea via a 52-kilometer (32-mile) cable, ending at an undersea ocean observatory at a depth of 900 meters (3,000 feet). The cable will transmit data from the instruments to shore and transmit power from shore to the instruments, allowing the constant collection of data.

Global Sentinel lowers the trawl-resistant frame.
The cable-laying ship Global Sentinel lowers the trawl-resistant frame (orange object at bow of ship) that will protect the electronic "guts" of the observatory from damage by anchors or fishing gear. Image: Knute Brekke (c) 2007 MBARI

In April 2007, the cable-laying ship Global Sentinel installed the MARS cable and a frame that will house the central electronics package. The MARS cable is buried about three feet below the seafloor along most of its route, so that it will not be disturbed by boat anchors or fishing gear. The cable itself contains a copper electrical conductor and strands of optical fiber. The copper conductor will transmit up to 10 kilowatts of power from a shore station at Moss Landing, California, to instruments on the seafloor. The optical fiber will carry up to two gigabits per second of data from these instruments back to researchers on shore. This will allow scientists to monitor and control their instruments round the clock, and to get a unique view of how environmental conditions in the deep sea change over time.

At the seaward end of the MARS cable, the large steel "trawl-resistant frame"—about 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and 4.6 meters (15 feet) on each side—will protect the electronic "guts" of the MARS observatory, serving as a computer network hub and electrical substation in the deep sea. The researchers expect to install these electronic components into the trawl-resistant frame in fall 2007.

The MBARI team, led by Keith Raybould and Gene Massion, partnered with engineering teams from the University of Washington, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, L-3 MariPro, and Alcatel Submarine Networks to design and install the cabled observatory. The National Science Foundation granted $7 million to the MARS project in September 2002.

MARS cable
The MARS cable starts at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, and extends to an undersea plateau called "Smooth Ridge" at a depth of  900 meters.
Image: (c) 2007 MBARI

"We take for granted the fact that the infrastructure for power and communications is readily available on land,” said Marcia McNutt, president and CEO of MBARI. “But for decades researchers have struggled with the problem that there is no undersea equivalent to the wall socket, the phone line, or the internet drop. MARS will provide the first state-of-the-art power and communications 'highway' into the deep sea."

MBARI contributors to MARS project: Mandy Allen, Jim Bellingham, Peter Braccio, Knute Brekke, Craig Dawe, Steve Etchemendy, Aaron Marburg, Gene Massion, Paul McGill, Marcia McNutt, Ed Mellinger, Keith Raybould, Rich Schramm, Farley Shane, Kevin Sullivan, Greg Voogd


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