In May 2015, at a shipyard in France, workers completed the first piece of SeaOrbiter. The massive free-floating laboratory could someday soon roam the oceans, drifting on the ocean current and giving a crew of scientists a chance to study the aquatic environment in a new way.
The eye, the uppermost structural portion of the craft, is now on exhibit at the Cité de la Mer in Cherbourg. For SeaOrbiter's designer, French architect Jacques Rougerie, it was a triumph to be savored; he raised $387,000 from private donors through a crowdfunding campaign to build the eye.
"When in two years the SeaOrbiter is built, you are all invited to come aboard with us, in this amazing adventure of the 21st century, dedicated to the next generations," said Rougerie.
But before that can happen, Rougerie's eponymous foundation must raise the remainder of the close to $53 million it reportedly will cost to finish the floating laboratory.
"SeaOrbiter is currently looking for investors to fund the complete construction of the vessel," says foundation spokesperson Merlyn Kaurit via email. "Once the construction has officially started, it would take 18 months to finish the SeaOrbiter."
SeaOrbiter is envisioned as a sort of floating equivalent of the International Space Station (ISS). But unlike ISS, which is funded by various governments, Rougerie is counting on private benefactors. SeaOrbiter does have research partnerships with some government agencies, such as France's National Center for Scientific Research.
Built of aluminum, the 190-foot (58-meter) tall, 550-ton (499-metric ton) vessel will be one of the strangest ships ever set to sea. It will have 12 levels, six of which will sit below the water line, and will essentially drift like a buoy on the ocean currents. Its crew of up to 22 researchers will stay aboard the SeaOrbiter for up to six months at a stretch. A pressurized underwater module will allow them to conduct experiments and to leave the craft in scuba gear, much like astronauts who take spacewalks outside the ISS. They'll also be able to launch small submarines and descend to depths of nearly 20,000 feet (6 kilometers). Check out this interactive 3-D model:
"SeaOrbiter gives the man permanent eyes and ears in the underwater world," says Kaurit. That, in turn, would provide "a different and better vision of the ocean."
SeaOrbiter will be a departure from the way that ocean scientists generally work, in which they take airplanes or ships to locations where they intend to do research.
While SeaOrbiter's lack of a powerful propulsion system and inability to navigate could be seen as drawbacks, those unusual qualities actually could be an advantage for certain types of research, says Charles Kennel. He's the former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and has advised the SeaOrbiter team, leading a Scripps group about 10 years ago that evaluated SeaOrbiter's value for performing science. (A report was prepared but remains unpublished.)
Unlike a self-propelled research ship, Kennel explains, SeaOrbiter doesn't disturb the water around it. That would enable scientists to study the subtle chemical and biological processes that would normally be disturbed by a self-propelled ship. "We could learn how these small-scale interactions affect the oceans and atmosphere," he says. "It would be a unique platform. It will complement the sort of research that's being done on ships."
Kennel adds, "By floating slowly with the currents, you'll encounter different kinds of microbial content in the upper oceans. As you move through these environments, the ocean microbiome will change, and you'll be able to follow those changes."
SeaOrbiter researchers, for example, who would be on the ocean around the clock, also would have the opportunity to study the day-night cycle in the upper ocean, in which plankton rise to the surface as after the sun rises and then descend at night. "It's never been easy to study this before," he says. "But if you ride the current, you can."
Need more? Check out this TED presentation from Jacques Rougerie himself.