Deep Sea Exploration Dealt A Blow As Robot Submarine Implodes Under 6 Miles Of Ocean [VIDEO]

By Ben Wolford on May 13, 2014 4:04 PM EDT

The deep-see robot Nereus imploded Saturday under more than six miles of ocean. (Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
The deep-see robot Nereus imploded Saturday under more than six miles of ocean. (Photo: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Nereus couldn't take the pressure. By the time the deep-sea robot plunged to 6.2 miles underneath the surface, the ocean was exerting about 16,000 lbs. per square inch. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announced in a kind of eulogy this week that the unmanned Nereus was lost, mostly likely because of implosion.

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"Nereus helped us explore places we've never seen before and ask questions we never thought to ask," said Timothy Shank, a biologist with Woods Hole, in the statement. The robotic submarine was designed to withstand seven-mile dives as it explored one of the last frontiers on Earth. With pictures and biological samples from the deepest oceans in the world, Nereus was to "[address] some of the most fundamental scientific problems of our time about life on Earth," Shank said.

Named for the half-fish, half-man Greek god, Nereus was built for $8 million and was said to have "pushed the envelope on a lot of fronts of technology." Its first launch was in 2008, and by 2009 it had already plunged 6.8 miles down the deepest part of the ocean, the Pacific's Mariana Trench. "Every square inch of Nereus is designed to withstand about a thousand times the pressure that we are exposed to right here on Earth's surface," said Andy Bowen, Woods Hole project engineer. "Each square inch of Nereus is loaded with about 15,000 pounds; that's equivalent to having three SUVs stacked on your big toe."

On Saturday, Nereus was seven hours into a nine-hour dive off the coast of New Zealand in the deepest part of the Kermadec Trench. The trench is the second-deepest on the planet — deeper than Mount Everest is tall, according to Kermadec Initiative. Saturday's dive was part of a 40-day expedition funded by the National Science Foundation, a first effort to understand the area's biology and geology. After the mothership lost contact with Nereus, the crew discovered floating debris, which likely belonged to the robot. They're examining it to confirm how the implosion happened.

Nereus was one of just four vehicles to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and its loss will likely set back scientific exploration. It was supposed to return to the Mariana Trench in November. "Extreme exploration of this kind is never without risk, and the unfortunate loss of Nereus only underscores the difficulty of working at such immense depths and pressures," said Woods Hole Director of Research Larry Madin. "Fortunately there was no human injury as a consequence of this loss."

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