Is it a ship or a spaceship? Scheduled for launch several years from now, Sea Orbiter will generate a gold mine of information benefitting scientific research, space exploration and education in general. We spoke to Frenchman Jacques Rougerie, the father of this future undersea observatory.
NE e-mag: What’s the idea behind this project?
Jacques Rougerie: The idea behind Sea Orbiter is to enable a crew of 18 to live for extended periods beneath the sea. They’ll drift on the ocean currents in order to observe and listen to the underwater world 24 hours a day. They’ll be able to exit directly underwater, whatever the surface conditions.
NE e-mag: Can you describe the vessel for us?
Jacques Rougerie: Sea Orbiter is 30 meters across, extends 27 meters above the sea and 31 meters below its surface. It has nine decks and weighs 1000 tons. For safety, the bridge is above the water, but the crew lives essentially underwater. The lowest deck is a pressurized area 12 meters beneath the surface, where six people will live. It’s divided into two parts: one for divers to gear up and exit directly underwater through an airlock, and a dock for a two-person submarine for exploratory missions.
The boat is very comfortable. It has work and relaxation areas, a cardiovascular fitness zone and a communications center so the crew can stay in touch with family, journalists, schools and institutes. The vessel is equipped with all the antennas necessary for permanent communications with the rest of the world.
“The vessel will drift 80% of the time. It makes no noise while underway.”
NE e-mag: What are the project goals?
Jacques Rougerie: The first goal is education and awareness. We’d like to do thematic broadcasts for schools, like the astronaut Thomas Pesquet does from space. We’d also like to network with all the sea study centers around the world. Sea Orbiter could become a sort of roving ambassador, sharing information about the sea in real time.
Another goal is scientific research. We could observe cetaceans in the water column rather than at the surface, something that’s never done on a continuous basis. Then there’s phytoplankton and zooplankton at different depths. We also could observe tuna and other species we run across. We’ll also be able to send vehicles out to great depths over the abyssal trenches.
Another goal is space research. There are great similarities between outer space and the undersea world. Both present restrictions and extreme conditions. Nothing this close can be found on land. Crew living in the pressurized area can train “outside” under the water, as if on a space walk. That’s why I started the Sea Orbiter project with Jean-Loup Chrétien and other astronauts. The boat will be a sort of international space station of the seas.
NE e-mag: Will you also study human behavior under extreme conditions?
“We’ll go into the Pacific for two years without touching land.”
Jacques Rougerie: Absolutely. This is a terrific laboratory for studying human physiology and psychology, which will be useful for future space exploration and diving. It’s a field lab where we can study potential medical and psychological problems. We’ll also research new materials like carbon fiber and new-generation aluminum to observe their deformation over long periods.
NE e-mag: How long do you expect to remain underwater?
Jacques Rougerie: There will be several programs. The first will take place in the Mediterranean for 10- to 15-day periods over the course of a year. The second will be in the Atlantic for one or two months at a time over the course of two years. Finally, we’ll go into the Pacific for two years without touching land.
This last program is of particular interest to space agencies working on voyages to Mars. Two years is the time it will take to reach the red planet, spend some time there and return. NASA’s NEEMO project is preparing future Martian trips. NEEMO is also involved in the Sea Orbiter project.
NE e-mag: Isn’t Sea Orbiter 100% ecological?
Jacques Rougerie: Yes. It follows very specific guidelines regarding environmental protection, and all the materials are recyclable. The hull is made from recycled aluminum and the transparent elements from polycarbonate—synthetics rather than glass.
Vessel propulsion will generate no emissions. We have two big electric thrusters and 15 meters above the sea there’s a “solar skin” covering 340 m2. These are new-generation solar panels like those on Bertrand Piccard’s Solar Impulse plane. We also have two large, vertical-axis wind turbines, as well as swell-powered generators along the floats.
But the most important thing is that the vessel will simply drift 80% of the time. We’ll deploy the thrusters only to change course to avoid danger or to enter port. That means the vessel makes absolutely no noise while underway.
NE e-mag: Why does it resemble a spaceship?
Jacques Rougerie: The main goal was stability. It’s important that the submerged part of the vessel be as stable as possible, in particular so that divers and underwater vehicles can exit directly underwater, whatever the surface conditions. Leaving the hull of a boat 12 meters beneath the surface isn’t is easy as you might think. Boats were originally designed to travel the seas, and aren’t adapted to the underwater environment. I wanted to think differently, using another paradigm. That’s why Sea Orbiter doesn’t have the same form or functions as traditional vessels.
NE e-mag: Is the boat already under construction?
Jacques Rougerie: No. We’re still putting together the financing. After that, we’ll need six months to complete the plans and 18 months to build Sea Orbiter. The financing is the hardest part, but we’ll get there.