Lots of folks start a new year hoping to lose some weight. R/V Neil Armstrong, however, rang in 2017 waiting to take on a few pounds—almost 700,000, in fact. Read More →
Lots of folks start a new year hoping to lose some weight. R/V Neil Armstrong, however, rang in 2017 waiting to take on a few pounds—almost 700,000, in fact. Read More →
By David Yuknat
As a board member of the Grayce B. Kerr Fund I’ve been peripherally involved with WHOI for years now, watching various research projects come to life and helping scientists advance their important work. A little while back, some colleagues and I were offered an incredible opportunity to travel aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong on a four-night transit from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Woods Hole, Mass. The ship had just finished up its first international research trips off the coast of Greenland and was heading home.
After departing Woods Hole in July, R/V Neil Armstrong made its first trip to service the moorings at the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) Global Array in the Irminger Sea and then made its first foreign port stop on a scientific mission. Reykjavik, Iceland, was a frequent port-of-call for the ship’s predecessor, R/V Knorr, and it looks like Neil Armstrong will continue the practice. Read More →
After completing Science Verification Cruise 4 on May 9, 2016, R/V Neil Armstrong sailed into Woods Hole on a bright spring morning. Look for R/V Atlantis tied up at the dock (in Armstrong’s usual berth) and the post-cruise photo with all of the science party and ship’s crew assembling on the aft deck.
Science Verification Cruise #4 began yesterday at about 8:00 a.m. when the Neil Armstrong left the WHOI dock—and immediately returned. That was intentional, as we wanted to test deployment procedures for the two vehicles on board: WHOI-built Nereid Under Ice (NUI), which will operate in autonomous mode, and the Univ. of Connecticut’s remotely operated Kraken 2. To do so, we needed to turn the ship and tie up with the port side to the dock so that the main crane could put the vehicles into the water on the starboard side.
Once that was completed at 1:00, we pulled our lines and sailed off into the fog and drizzle. Nine hours later, we arrived on station—too late to begin work with the ROV, so we opted for some launch and recovery tests with NUI from a moving deck. By midnight, and with a list of improvements to make before their next opportunity to go in the water tomorrow evening, the ship’s crew and NUI team decided to call it a night.
This morning began like many mornings at sea: with a meeting. Today will address the first primary objective of the cruise—to use the ROV to recover an autonomous underwater vehicle docking station at one of the mooring sites of the Pioneer Array, which is one of several coastal, regional and global components of the NSF-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative. The array is a collection of 10 moorings spread across seven sites about 100 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard collecting a wide range of meteorological and oceanographic data and transmitting these to shore. One mooring also includes a seafloor docking station for a REMUS 600 autonomous underwater vehicle that, once installed, will allow scientists on shore to fly pre-programmed, standardized missions as well as “missions of opportunity” to investigate unexpected events. When the AUV returns to the dock, a wind turbine on a buoy at the surface will supply power to recharge it; it can also send its data back to shore via a satellite antenna on the same buoy.
Because it is part of a complex configuration, recovering the dock is not straightforward. First, the ROV has to disconnect a power and data line between the dock and the anchor at the base of the mooring. Then, the ROV has to maneuver 300 meters or so over to the dock and connect a line from the ship so that we can haul the dock to the surface. It may sound simple, but launching the ROV and maneuvering it into place to disconnect the cable took up the first half of the day. Then the ROV and the ship engaged in a delicate dance of first one and then the other moving in short hops to the location where they hoped to – and ultimately did – find the docking station.
There is also another dance taking place between operators of the ship and ROV: both are learning how the other team works and how their systems can integrate with each other. This is important because the Kraken 2 ROV team may have to conduct similar missions in the future. That makes the human systems just as much a part of this verification cruise as the vehicles.
We’ll be following the next three science verification cruises beginning in early May.
With Neil Armstrong scheduled to arrive in Woods Hole at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, we thought it would be a good time to quickly catch up on news from the ship. Read More →
We arrived in San Francisco on November 7 to an unusual sight: clear skies, calm seas, and very little ship traffic. It was so calm, in fact, that I woke up in a panic thinking that I’d missed our passage through the Golden Gate and that we’d already docked. But when I checked my watch, it was 5:30 a.m. Sleep was going to be impossible with all the adrenaline still pumping through my veins, so I got dressed, skipped coffee in the mess, and went out on deck to watch the sun come up.
Aside from sailing under one of the most iconic bridges in the world, the passage into San Francisco Harbor was uneventful. Memorable, stunning, and beautiful, but uneventful. We nudged up to the pier just south of the Bay Bridge, passed our lines to a few helping hands on shore, and suddenly the inaugural voyage of R/V Neil Armstrong was over.
The rest of our time in San Francisco was occupied with either getting the ship ready to host a parade of guests or watching the faces of our guests beam as they looked out from the bridge over the waterfront or stood on deck and listened to the crew describe science at sea.
As commonplace and everyday that life aboard a ship can quickly become, all it takes is a handful of visitors to remind us that there really is something romantic and other worldly about a ship, especially a research vessel. Even if that ship is functional and business-like, as this one is, the Neil Armstrong radiates a sense that its job is special. Add that special name to the bow and put “R/V” in front of it and you can understand why four pilots came out to guide us in, why more then 100 people streamed up the gangplank on Sunday and a rainy Monday and left only grudgingly, and why watching the video of us steaming under that bridge still brings chills.
There’s something about this ship
This weekend, the Neil Armstrong will be dropping anchor in the approach to the Panama Canal, where it will await a new group of visitors—and its turn to pass through to the Caribbean. After that, it will turn north for Charleston, S.C., and another shipyard, where it will receive much of its science equipment and truly become a research ship. Our work with the cranes and winches and our time living on board also revealed some small changes that could help make the ship even more workable and livable.
After shakedown cruises and tests of its new systems, Neil Armstrong will begin a series of science verification cruises in early March designed to assess the ship’s ability to support the full range of oceanographic work that will form its mission for decades to come. After that, or actually in the middle of all that, the ship will make its way north.
It’s not every day that an institution like WHOI gets to welcome the arrival of a new ship. In fact, it’s quite rare, so it will almost certainly be an exciting time in Woods Hole when the ship rounds Naushon Island and makes its approach to the WHOI dock that first time. Probably even more exciting than the trip into San Francisco.
There are two things to know about winches, cranes, and wires: they are very complex and they are crucial to this ship (and to any oceanographic research vessel) accomplishing its mission. Day 3 of the transit to San Francisco began a series of tests that, if all goes well, should finish today and that constitute the main objective for this part of our trip.
First, a bit of nomenclature. Any of the wires that have copper or optical fibers at their core, giving them the capability to transmit data and power are called cables; any of the wires that are merely braided strands of metal are called wires. For simplicity, I’ll use the word wire to mean either type. There are 10 kilometers (6 miles) of on each winch drum the Neil Armstrong.
This is the first time the wires on each of the four winch drums has been run out, making it a crucial time in assessing the ship’s ability to support science. Two of the wires (one 3/8″ wire and one .322 cable) can be threaded onto each of two cranes on the starboard side. These are actually not cranes, but “knucklebooms” that unfold from the side of the ship like gray praying mantis arms to lower instruments into the water, ideally with minimal tending by deck crew. Just to add to the complexity of the operation, one of the winches is also able to compensate for the motion of the ship, so that anything hanging from it will remain relatively stationary in the water or can be brought up at a constant speed.
Under the rear deck of the ship, there is a large traction winch with two drums of wire (one 9/16″ wire, one .681 cable) that can be threaded up to the large A-frame on the stern. These are used for towing and lifting heavy loads, in the case of the 9/16″, or, with the .681 cable, to operate ROVs like Jason, by transmitting power, control signals, and even high-definition video along the length of the cable.
The complexity comes in winding and unwinding these drums in a controlled manner and under heavy loads. There is a severe sort of beauty to the precision with which the winches were designed and built—in particular with which something called the level wind was built. As the winch drum turns, the level wind places each strand of wire beside the one that came the turn before it and in between the two turns directly beneath it. Without the level wind, that ordered simplicity would be replaced by an over-wrap, or worse, a horrifying tangled mess called a wuzzle—something that can damage the wire by crimping or crushing it and that has been known to end a cruise prematurely.
To do its job, the level wind has to account for the diameter and type of wire, the number of layers already on the drum and the number of turns on the current layer. These winches have a level wind that is both electronically and mechanically controlled. The software controlling the level wind is hidden from sight, but the mechanical part of the level wind, something called a diamond screw, is laid bare. It is a massive, precision-machined shaft that turns slowly with the drum to keep the winding head (and wire) in just the right position at all times. One tiny deviation forms the nucleus of a wuzzle.
That’s the complex part. Now for the importance of these machines. Quite simply, we could not do ocean science without them. Any research ship can only move over the surface; we need other instruments to help us look into the depths. Some of those are (or soon will be) mounted to the bottom of the hull: sonars and current profilers and the like. But many scientists come on board eager to put things in the water that take samples, gather data, or explore features like hydrothermal vents. For that, we need winches, cranes and wires (or cables). And we need them to be reliable, well maintained, and ready to work turn after turn and time after time. Hence the care with which these are being tested, observed, and assessed.
One of the most common instruments that will be going over the starboard side is the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) rosette, which measures those basic properties of the water and is equipped with two dozen 10-liter bottles that a technician can close from the surface to capture water sample at specific depths. This is considered the bread-and-butter of ocean science. Today, in our last test, we lowered the CTD almost to the bottom, a little over 4000 meters (2.5 miles).
It’s later now and the CTD is on deck. When it came to the surface, it attracted the attention of some passing dolphins. The technicians still have to look at the data and assess how well the winches operated and the crew has to discuss how to fine-tune their choreography on deck with the new cranes, but overall things went well. The cranes might be fancier and the wires and winches shiny and new, but this crew has worked with heavy machinery like this for years.
Every cast brought a little more light to the question of how well the Neil Armstrong would be able to that most basic task of putting something over the side and bringing it back again. (The answer: It will do just fine.) There are some changes that will need to be made in the upcoming yard period to accommodate different instrument packages, but with that final deployment today, carrying a CTD within a few dozen feet of the seafloor and back, Neil Armstrong made one thing clear. This is a research vessel and it is equipped to bring knowledge to the surface.
Building a ship like Neil Armstrong and its sister ship Sally Ride is not cheap, but compared to what they will give us over the next 40 or 50 years in terms of knowledge about the ocean, they will almost certainly pay for themselves many times over.
The ocean sustains us. It makes Earth livable and makes life as we know it possible. It harbors the greatest diversity and abundance of life on our planet and it is the single largest living space that we know of. Anywhere. Oceans on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn may eventually prove to be larger or richer and more biodiverse, but right now the ocean that covers more than two-thirds of Earth is the only one we know of in the solar system—and it is the one that defines our planet and our existence.
When you look out over the ocean, that unbroken horizon and the relative sameness of that surface hide a complex world that borders on the fanciful. The seafloor is a vast terrain more spectacular than almost anything on dry land. There are peaks higher than Everest, mountain ranges longer and more rugged than the Andes, fissures deeper and more awe-inspiring than the Grand Canyon, and plains that could swallow the Sahara.
But in many respects those are tourist attractions (with a nod to the geophysicists and the forces that created the topography.) The ocean is also teeming with life, from shallow coral reefs to the sediments beneath the deepest trenches. Some of it provides us with food, and for nearly one billion people on the planet – many of whom live in developing countries – seafood is a primary source of their daily protein. Smaller and less charismatic organisms, marine algae, produce as much or more oxygen than all of the forests on land combined. Think of them the next time you take a breath. Marine microbes, many of which have yet to be named or understood and some of which hold the potential for novel materials or life-saving drugs, are more abundant than stars in the known universe.
And yet, for all its importance to us and to every other living thing we know of and to almost every planetary system that helps make Earth livable, we know remarkably little about what goes on at or beneath the ocean surface, let alone how human activity is beginning to alter the way it works. That’s not to say that we don’t know anything. In fact, we know quite a lot, which is a testament to what can happen when curious, motivated scientists and engineers have the opportunity to go to sea. But research ships are scarce and ship time for scientists woefully short to fill the gap between what we know and what we need to know. And that gap only seems to widen every time we learn something new.
One thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that the ocean is changing. Humans have long seen the ocean as virtually limitless and untouchable and so have used it as a dumping ground for waste and refuse. The impacts that resulted were relatively confined, but now the changes we see span the globe and echo throughout the water column. Surface water is getting warmer as a direct result of humans burning more fossil fuels and pumping more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, individual species and entire ecosystems are rearranging themselves, not always successfully. Precipitation patterns and other elements of the climate that dictated how and where humans settled on land are also reshuffling in response to the physical changes we’re forcing on the ocean. And now the ocean’s very chemistry is also changing, growing more acidic, again as a direct result of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and with any number of potential impacts on marine ecosystems—none of them good.
To study the ocean—to understand how it works, how we are changing it, and how those changes are likely to affect us in turn—we need ships like Armstrong and people to go to sea on them. We need to put our instruments in the water, take samples, make measurements, and to do it all again next year. Or next season. Or tomorrow.
That is why we build ships like this one. And why we need more of them.