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Ocean scientists eye new diver

After years of watching robots increasingly rule the deep, an influential federal science panel is calling for a new generation of deep-sea submersible that will allow humans to reach the deep ocean, a forbidding place where the water pressure is so great it can bend metal and pulverize bone.

The plan, contained in a draft report for the National Academy of Sciences, recommends an ambitious replacement for the famed Alvin, the 39-year-old submersible at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that has taken more researchers to abyssal depths than any other. A new Alvin, as envisioned by Woods Hole designers, would dive 50 percent deeper than the current model -- reaching depths of up to 4 miles -- while providing researchers with bigger portholes for observation and more leg room.

A new Alvin would also reassert the human role in exploration in a period when some researchers have called for scrapping Alvin altogether because of the cost and difficulty of manned missions. Deep-ocean researchers hope the new vessel could trigger the marine equivalent of a space race as US researchers for the first time could reach 99 percent of the world's ocean floor.

"There's nothing like being there," said Tim Askew, director of marine operations for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, near Orlando, Fla. "We're just scratching the surface of the oceans. We're spending billions to go up in space and basically pennies on discovering what's in our own backyard."

The proposal from the Committee on Future Needs in Deep Submergence Science won't be finalized until November, and the $20 million plan for a new Alvin would require approval from the National Science Foundation, which plays a key role in deciding how federal funds for science will be spent. However, the foundation cosponsored the report from the committee, which is part of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Spokesmen for the Woods Hole institution and the National Academies declined to comment on the report before its release. Daniel J. Fornari, Woods Hole's head of deep submergence and the leader of Alvin's redesign team, cautioned that the report may change in its final form.

However, a person close to the committee said the panel has been urged to finish its work quickly so that the National Science Foundation could incorporate the cost of a new Alvin and other exploration projects in next year's recommended federal funding.

There are compelling economic reasons to explore the oceans, from untapped stores of oil and gas that may rival anything on land to microorganisms that might be useful in creating new drugs. But there is also the sheer mystery of the deep; for instance, the legendary giant squid has still never been seen alive in its blackened home.

Alvin has been a veritable workhorse in exploring the ocean, making more than 3,800 dives, and transporting 11,300 researchers to the sea floor, the most of any deep-diving vessel, according to Woods Hole. But newer manned subs from Japan, Russia, and France have overtaken Alvin, with its small windows, cramped quarters for two scientists, and a diving limit of 14,765 feet.

Moreover, US ocean research increasingly has turned more toward tethered robots called remote-operated vehicles, or ROVs, that can brave the most hazardous conditions at a fraction of the cost. In particular, Robert Ballard, a former Woods Hole scientist turned undersea explorer, has used ROVs with great success, pinpointing the grave of the Titanic in 1985.

However, robots aren't as useful in observing fleeting creatures as they are at salvage efforts or geological sampling of the ocean floor, said Askew, whose institution operates three manned subs that explore waters up to 3,000 feet deep.

"Even with advanced imaging technology and cameras, [an ROV relays images] in 2-D. The peripheral vision and the perception of all that's going on just isn't there," he said.

Though design for what is being called Alvin 6500 is in its earliest stages, Woods Hole's redesign calls for a heavier sub than the old Alvin, featuring advanced hydraulics and sensors and powered by either long-lasting fuel cells or batteries. It could dive faster than Alvin and 50 percent farther, reaching 99 percent of the ocean floor and a maximum depth of 21,325 feet, matching the deepest-diving research vessel in the world, Japan's Shinkai 6500.

And supporters of the idea say the timing is good for a new commitment to manned ocean exploration, despite the growing federal budget deficit, because Congress and the Bush administration are showing a greater interest in ocean exploration. A $5.5-million, privately-sponsored report released this spring by the Pew Oceans Commission advised doubling US budgets for oceanography to $1.5 billion a year, and creating an agency similar to NASA to centralize policy development. The National Research Council is expected to make a similar pitch in another report to Congress due this fall.

Don Liberatore, chief submersible pilot and manager of undersea vehicles for Harbor Branch in Florida, hopes top politicians now recognize the value of ocean exploration.

"Should we have a presence in the deep ocean? Absolutely," Liberatore said. "There's an amazing world down there, and a lot more we need to learn about it."

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