SeaOrbiter: Superlab at Sea

Published August 15, 2014

Scheduled to launch in 2016, the SeaOrbiter is a high-tech vessel created for ocean exploration. The 190-foot-tall craft, which is being built with support from the National Geographic Society, is designed so that the top half towers above the ocean’s surface while the bottom plunges into the water. Unlike other vessels such as ships, which must refuel regularly, the SeaOrbiter is so efficient that it can stay in the water for long periods without returning to land to juice up.


In the September 2014 issue of NG Kids magazine, you get a sneak peek at some of the SeaOrbiter's coolest features. And check out the interactive 3-D model below, along with sample imagery that might be collected from the vessel's Remote Operated Vehicles and a look at how astronauts go underwater to prepare for outerspace missions.


Illustration courtesy SeaOrbiter/Jacques Rougerie

Underwater Tech


ROV Hercules illuminates the ocean floor.


Photo courtesy NOAA Okeanos Explorer

Exploring With Robots

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are devices that will let scientists explore underwater peaks, canyons, and even shipwrecks without leaving the SeaOrbiter. Operated by technicians from the vessel's control room, the ROVs can travel thousands of feet deep while sending live video back to the SeaOrbiter and recording various measurements.

ROV technology has been around since the mid-1900s. Check out the video at the right and images below captured during recent expeditions by ROVs launched from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Okeanos Explorer ship.

In addition to ROVs, scientists also use autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and Human Operated Vehicles (HOVs) to explore the ocean. AUVs are preprogrammed to follow a designated course and use sensors to avoid hitting underwater terrain. HOVs allow scientists to get a first-hand look at life deep below the ocean surface.

Underwater Space


Astronauts practice working on an underwater scale of the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab.


Photograph by Chris Gunn, courtesy NASA

A Long Distance Call

The first call between outer space and the ocean took place on Jan. 26, 2007. Listen to the call made between Tim Shank, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute marine biologist two miles underwater in the Alvin HOV, and Sunita Williams, a NASA astronaut 200 miles up in the International Space Station, and learn about living in these extreme environments.

Audio courtesy NASA

Preparing for Outer Space ... From Underwater

Pressure below the sea is much higher than it is above water. A scuba diver taking multiple trips deep underwater can get sick traveling back and forth between the different levels of pressure. So before and after long, deep dives, divers must spend time in a pressurized room where the force can be controlled. The pressure here is increased or lowered slowly so divers can adjust to the pressure of the environment they’re about to enter. The confined, pressurized environment in this area is similar to what it’s like on the International Space Station. So astronauts can also prepare for space missions onboard the SeaOrbiter.

Astronauts have also been training for space since the mid-1960s in "neutral buoyancy" underwater environments, which involve weights and flotation devices that give astronauts the closest available simulation of working in space. At the world's largest swimming pool, which is 40-feet deep and located at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, astronauts practice spacewalks alongside an underwater model of the International Space Station.

Did You Know?


Astronauts training underwater encounter water resistance and are able to feel their own weight, which are elements they don't encounter while orbiting in space.

Portions of this story were taken from the "Superlab at Sea" article written by April Capochino Myers in the September 2014 issue of NG Kids magazine.



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