WOODS HOLE, MASS. — The tiny electronic "swimming eyeball" used to photograph ornate crystal chandeliers and marble columns deep inside the sunken Titanic represents a major advance for marine science and exploration, scientists and Navy officials said here Wednesday.
It is "a quantum leap in deep-dive technology," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Neuhart, a spokesman for the deep-sea exploration of the long-lost wreck of the famed luxury liner.
"With this capability, we'll be able to both explore and perform experiments at depths and locations unheard of before," said Dr. John Steele, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit scientific institute coordinating the historic expedition.
Deceptively Easy to Run
While the technology of the lawnmower-sized, remote-controlled, propeller-driven probe called Jason Jr. is complex, running it appears deceptively simple.
An operator in a nearby three-man mini-submarine uses a joy stick from a console on his lap and watches a video monitor, much like a video arcade game, to guide the royal blue probe through the giant ship's pitch-black interiors.
"It's a lot harder than Pac-Man," said Dr. Dana R. Yoerger, a member of the institution team that developed the probe last winter. "Imagine playing Pac-Man where you can only see through Pac-Man's eyes. You can't see the maze. You can't see the goblins. You can only see what's ahead of you. . . . The problems are formidable."
Mixed with the excitement over the new technology is the undeniable emotion sweeping this usually sleepy seaside village as expedition leader Dr. Robert Ballard radios back daily details of man's first return to the ship some 2 1/2 miles underwater.
"You can't help but feel it," Ballard said excitedly in a ship-to-shore call.
"You have these flashbacks that Capt. Smith stood here, and (financier John Jacob) Astor was there, and that's where they loaded the women and children into the boats. You don't hear them, you just feel them," Ballard said. "You remember the staircase scene with people going up and down the staircase, and you remember the band playing."
74 Years Since the Tragedy
It has been 74 years since the grand salon band last played to calm panicking passengers until the world's largest and most luxurious ship slipped through the icy North Atlantic and settled in darkness 12,500 feet below. With too few lifeboats, more than 1,500 people died and only 703 survived.
Using unmanned camera-carrying submersibles, Ballard's team found the wreck about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland last September. Based on the research vessel Atlantis 2, the scientists have descended in the mini-submarine Alvin four times so far this week, to study and photograph the wreck's decay, to land repeatedly on the decks and bridge and to send the probe, Jason Jr., into first-class rooms and a gymnasium.
"We refer to it as our swimming eyeball," Cmdr. Neuhart said.
In an eight-hour dive Wednesday, Ballard and two other scientists landed the Alvin by the ship's wheelhouse and used the Jason Jr. to look into windows of the crew's quarters, then to investigate the crow's nest and a brass mast light atop a forward mast.
Observes Crow's Nest
It was from the crow's nest that two forward observers first sighted the gleaming iceberg in the still waters just before midnight on April 14, 1912. The 882-foot-long ship, steaming nearly full speed despite repeated radio warnings of ice, sliced a 300-foot-long gash in its double-bottomed starboard hull as it grazed the giant berg.
In a ship-to-shore call to Woods Hole Institution colleagues early Wednesday night, Ballard said that after observing the crow's nest, the scientists then landed the Alvin on the starboard boat deck. They maneuvered the robot through a doorway where it photographed the cavernous gymnasium, posh officers' quarters and the grand promenade.
The Jason Jr. then floated down a first-class staircase and again photographed unbroken crystal chandeliers. Hauling the probe out, the Alvin returned to the boom on the bow and found "some sort of writing about the Glasgow works," where parts of the ship were built, on the still-shiny brass windlasses.
"It was the best day yet," Ballard said. "The (photographic) imaging was breathtaking." Ballard said no human remains were sighted.
Scientists at Controls
Institution scientists Martin Bowen piloted the Jason Jr., while Will Sellars operated the mini-submarine.
The Navy's Office of Naval Research is backing the $20,000-a-day, three-week expedition as part of a $2.8-million, five-year contract with the institution to develop the Argo/Jason system to map, research and explore the ocean bottom.
Tested for the first time on this trip, the prototype Jason Jr. has a titanium hull and is 20 inches high, 27 inches wide and 28 inches long. Compact electric motors power four propellers, enabling it to "swim" in any direction.