Mars Rover, Move Over: Making A Rover To Explore The Deep Sea

17:15 minutes

A collection of machinery parts and wheels that sits on the bottom of the ocean.
Benthic Rover II travels across the muddy seafloor, taking photographs and measuring how much oxygen bottom-dwelling animals and microbes are using over time. The information gathered by this autonomous rover has helped scientists understand how carbon cycles from the surface to the seafloor. Credit: © 2016 MBARI

When you hear the word ‘rover,’ it’s likely your brain imagines another planet. Take Mars, for instance, where the steadfast rolling science labs of Perseverance and Curiosity—and the half dozen robotic rovers before them—slowly examine the geology of the Red Planet for signs of past habitability.

A purple fish glints in slight light as it swims close to the sand at the bottom of the ocean.
The camera on Benthic Rover II captures its fleeting encounters with fishes on the abyssal seafloor. Rattails (Coryphaenoides sp.) are scavengers that swim in the waters just above the seafloor, searching for food.
Credit: © 2021 MBARI

But Earth has rovers too. The autonomous, deep-sea Benthic Rover II, engineered by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), trawls a desolate surface too—this one 4,000 meters below the surface of the ocean, on a cold abyssal plain, under the crushing weight of 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.

Deep beneath the surface, the rover is seeking data about carbon: What carbon sources make it down to such a deep sea floor? And does that carbon return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it might contribute to global warming, or sequestered safely as an inert part of the ocean sediment?

Ira Flatow talks to engineer Alana Sherman and ecologist Crissy Hufford, both of MBARI, about the work it takes to make a rover for the deep sea, and the value of its data as we look to the future of our oceans.

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Segment Guests

Alana Sherman

Dr. Alana Sherman is the electrical engineering group lead at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.

Crissy Huffard

Dr. Crissy Huffard is a senior research specialist and ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.

Segment Transcript

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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