A bad day on MARS

MARS%20graphic%20Credit%20David%20Fierstein%20MBARI.jpg

Not the red planet, but rather the Monterey Accelerated Research System, an undersea observatory taking formâ''if haltinglyâ''in the icy depths of the Pacific Ocean some 32 kilometers off California's coast. Last month an ROV from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute installed the observatory's main science node at a depth of 900 meters. But when engineers threw the switch on the node's 10,000 volt power supply, they discovered a ground fault in the main underwater electrical plug connecting the node to shore.

The fault necessitated surfacing of the 2-ton package of electronics as well as the observatory's trawl-resistant steel frame, requiring a large ship and complex logistics. Replacing the plug and reinstalling the node will set the project back at least several months.

Spectrum readers will recognize this setback as simply one more sign of the inherent challenge of connecting high power and broadband information to deep-sea instrumentsâ''the subject of the 2005 Spectrum feature, "Neptune Rising", which profiled a family of U.S. and Canadian projects sharing engineering and components to create the world's most advanced remotely-operated and internet-connected underwater research stations. One piece of the programâ''VENUSâ''is delivering real-time data from relatively shallow installations off Vancouver Island in British Columbia, while the deeper MARS and NEPTUNE projects remain works in progress.

Power is a key challenge. As Neptune Rising was going to press in the fall of 2005 engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were troubleshooting bugs in the sophisticated power supply they designed for MARSâ''a problem that would ultimately take another 14 months and a new engineering team at Alcatel to solve. Imagine the disappointment of the MARS team to be upended by a faulty plug after all that high-tech sweat and blood!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in a communiqué issued last month, put the problems down to life on the cutting edge, quoting the words of David Packard (of Hewlett Packard fame) when he founded the institute in 1987. Packard apparently admonished the new institute's researchers to take risks and ask big questions. "Don't be afraid to make mistakes," said Packard. "If you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough." Let's hope the National Science Foundation officials supporting MARS agree.

Photo credit: David Fierstein, MBARI

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