Rutgers launches underwater glider to follow famed ship's path


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Rutgers faculty and staff are launching a submersible to follow in the path of HMS Challenger, the first ship to travel across the world 150 years ago.


In the 1870s, the HMS Challenger became the first ship to circumnavigate the globe for scientific purposes. Almost 150 years later, Rutgers staff and students are retracing the ship’s path with a submersible robot.

This undertaking, dubbed the Challenger Glider Mission, is overseen by Rutgers Center of Ocean Observing Leadership (RU COOL). The center is reenacting history using present-day technology, while also gathering data about the ocean’s changing temperatures, according to the Mission's website.

The HMS Challenger was initially a British warship modified to conduct oceanic research. The original journey, which took place from 1873 to 1876, sought to unearth information to settle disputes regarding the theory of evolution, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The objective of the Challenger Glider Mission differed greatly from that of the HMS Challenger, said Scott Glenn, co-director of RU COOL and a distinguished professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

“One of the biggest controversies our society is faced with nowadays is the issue of climate change,” Glenn said. “So we want to gather data related to this topic, such as ocean temperatures, salinity levels and changes in the currents.”

Since 1901, the surface temperatures of oceans have risen an average of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA estimated that major freshwater sources in the United States, such as the Great Lakes, are rising in temperature as well.

The submersible robot used in the Challenger Glider Mission is known as an underwater glider.

Underwater gliders are “robotic underwater vehicles used for measuring oceanographic parameters” such as chlorophyll levels, ocean depth, salinity, temperature and oxygen levels, according to the National Oceanography Centre.

The glider was launched off the Australian coast and into the Indian Ocean on Nov. 5, according to the Challenger Glider Mission website.

The glider is moving northwards and will eventually be recovered at Sri Lanka, said Oscar Schofield, co-director of RU COOL and a distinguished professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Schofield said exploring the sea with robots had benefits.

“The technical revolution in underwater robotics and global communications has enabled broader access to explore the ocean,” he said. “Robots (allow us) to collect data, train a new generation of oceanographers and deliver data (we collect) to global centers that improve humanity’s ability to forecast the ocean.”

While the Challenger Glider Mission’s primary goal is educational and information-based, there is a competitive aspect to it.

The project actually started out as a challenge, said Josh Kohut, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences. In 2009, he said NOAA's chief scientist, Rick Spinrad, issued a challenge for an underwater glider to follow the path taken by the HMS Challenger. The team has been working toward the goal ever since.

If Spinrad issued another challenge, Kohut said RU COOL would be more than ready to accept. 

“We’re always looking into the future,” he said. “Our staff and students are constantly thinking about what the next grand challenge is.”

Glenn said the Challenger Glider Mission was important because it served the function of introducing students to important global issues such as climate change.

“Students have to start learning about these types of expansive problems,” Glenn said. “As the next generation of workers and thinkers, it’s going to fall upon them to address these obstacles.”

The ocean should be seen as a viable resource in terms of fixing worldwide problems, he said. They can provide food, drink and transportation. Utilizing the ocean properly can be beneficial for society, meaning students should learn about it.

In addition, Glenn said students have the opportunity to learn robotics technology, another major focus of the Challenger Glider Mission.

“Students are expected to control the glider,” he said. “They pilot it, plan its upcoming missions and analyze the data it sends back to our lab. We encourage students in all majors to come by and check out our facilities. Our office offers great training for jobs that will eventually help change the world for the better.”


Nicholas Simon

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