Ocean "Telescience" at URI Probes Deep Inner Space

We went to URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus recently to visit with Bob Ballard, the famous underwater explorer and discoverer of such formerly lost ships as the Titanic, Lusitania and the Bismark, among others. Dr. Ballard wasn’t visiting URI for the occasion – he works there as a professor of Oceanography and director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography. He took us on a tour of the new Ocean Science and Exploration Center, which houses, along with the Pell Marine Science Library, the Inner Space Center.

We’ve all heard of outer space, but inner space? That’s oceanographers’ phrase for the ocean deep, which encompasses far more space than the total land mass of the earth, and the floor of which, where the discoveries are made, has only just begun to be seriously studied by ocean scientists and explorers. Bob Ballard told us that only 5 percent of it has been studied to date and that we know more about the surface of Mars at this point in time than we do about the ocean floor here on earth.

Exploration of the ocean floor is the prime mission of the Inner Space Center, which monitors a streaming video feed in real time of the ocean floor being searched by research vessels at sea. The Center is able to do this by a satellite and Internet2 links so that ocean scientists at URI and around the world can view the footage immediately, even from their laptops at home, enabling them to “step aboard” research ships around the world while never leaving the office or even home.

The technology now in practice is called “telescience,” something that Ballard envisioned almost 30 years before. A veteran of 120 expeditions at sea to date and many deep ocean dives, he explained that manned undersea exploration of the ocean deep is too costly and impractical when advanced robot vehicles can do the same job at no risk to humans. With the availability of streaming video from exploration ships at sea being constantly monitored at the Inner Space Center, a potential discovery site can be spotted and the ship held in place as ocean scientists take a good look from onshore. As Ballard explained, most of the most important discoveries to date have been accidental in nature. Now with ocean telescience in place, these fortunate accidents will become more common.

Even more important than the deep sea discoveries themselves (and those discoveries are not of ships but rather of deep ocean chemistry and life forms never glimpsed before), is the Inner Space Center’s educational outreach mission to middle schoolers here in RI and eventually around the country. A $1 million state grant provided the Inner Space Center with the technology to support live streaming video and educational content to middle schools throughout RI. (I am proud to add that a gift from the Taco/White Family Foundation provided some of the equipment to make this happen.) Discoveries at sea can now be viewed live in classrooms from Narragansett to Nagasaki, Japan, making telescience an important discovery and teaching tool for future generations of students.

Bob Ballard is especially passionate about this country’s need to educate more scientists so we can continue to compete with other nations, which are turning out far more scientists and researchers than we are – he mentioned during our visit, if I recall him correctly, that China now has more honor students in science and math than we do students! The Inner Space Center’s emphasis is on middle students, grades 7-9, because, as Ballard pointed out, if you don’t grab their attention and direct their educational focus to the hard sciences within that age group, you’ve lost them for good. I’d say this focus at that age level needs to become an important objective for national educational policy. We don’t need more psychology majors in this country, we need more scientists.

There are a lot of things wrong with the Ocean State, as we all know, so it’s especially gratifying to see a program like this going on in our midst. Rhode Island has always had a strong connection to the sea, and the oceanographic focus at our state university is especially welcome and needs to be supported, as it has by state voters who approved $14 million in state bonds back in 2004 to fund the construction of the Ocean Science and Exploration Center. Bob Ballard calls the Center the “mouse that roars in the Ocean State.” Bravo!