Bill Stone: I'm going to the moon. Who's with me? (1)
First place I'd like to take you is what many believe will be the world's deepest natural abyss. And I say believe because this process is still ongoing. Right now there are major expeditions being planned for next year that I'll talk a little bit about. One of the things that's changed here, in the last 150 years since Jules Verne had great science-fiction concepts of what the underworld was like, is that technology has enabled us to go to these places that were previously completely unknown and speculated about. We can now descend thousands of meters into the Earth with relative impunity. Along the way we've discovered fantastic abysses and chambers so large that you can see for hundreds of meters without a break in the line of sight. When you go on a thing like this, we can usually be in the field for anywhere from two to four months, with a team as small as 20 or 30, to as big as 150.
And a lot of people ask me, you know, what kind of people do you get for a project like this? While our selection process is not as rigorous as NASA, it's nonetheless thorough. We're looking for competence, discipline, endurance, and strength. In case you're wondering, this is our strength test. (Laughter) But we also value esprit de corps and the ability to diplomatically resolve inter-personal conflict while under great stress in remote locations.
We have already gone far beyond the limits of human endurance. From the entrance, this is nothing like a commercial cave. You're looking at Camp Two in a place called J2, not K2, but J2. We're roughly two days from the entrance at that point. And it's kind of like a high altitude mountaineering trip in reverse, except that you're now running a string of these things down. The idea is to try to provide some measure of physical comfort while you're down there, otherwise in damp, moist, cold conditions in utterly dark places. I should mention that everything you're seeing here, by the way, is artificially illuminated at great effort. Otherwise it is completely dark in these places.
The deeper you go, the more you run into a conflict with water. It's basically like a tree collecting water coming down. And eventually you get to places where it is formidable and dangerous and unfortunately slides just don't do justice. So I've got a very brief clip here that was taken in the late 1980s. So descend into Huautla Plateau in Mexico. (Video) Now I have to tell you that the techniques being shown here are obsolete and dangerous. We would not do this today unless we were doing it for film. (Laughter)
Along that same line, I have to tell you that with the spate of Hollywood movies that came out last year, we have never seen monsters underground -- at least the kind that eat you. If there is a monster underground, it is the crushing psychological remoteness that begins to hit every member of the team once you cross about three days inbound from the nearest entrance.
Next year I'll be leading an international team to J2. We're going to be shooting from minus 2,600 meters -- that's a little over 8,600 feet down -- at 30 kilometers from the entrance. The lead crews will be underground for pushing 30 days straight. I don't think there's been a mission like that in a long time. Eventually, if you keep going down in these things, probability says that you're going to run into a place like this. It's a place where there's a fold in the geologic stratum that collects water and fills to the roof. And when you used to find these things, they would put a label on a map that said terminal siphon. Now I remember that term really well for two reasons. Number one, it's the name of my rock band, and second, is because the confrontation of these things forced me to become an inventor. And we've since gone on to develop many generations of gadgets for exploring places like this. This is some life-support equipment closed-cycle. And you can use that now to go for many kilometers horizontally underwater and to depths of 200 meters straight down underwater. When you do this kind of stuff it's like doing EVA. It's like doing extra-vehicular activity in space, but at much greater distances, and at much greater physical peril. So it makes you think about how to design your equipment for long range, away from a safe haven.
Here's a clip from a National Geographic movie that came out in 1999. (Video) Narrator: Exploration is a physical process of putting your foot in places where humans have never stepped before. This is where the last little nugget of totally unknown territory remains on this planet. To experience it is a privilege.
Bill Stone: That was taken in Wakulla Springs, Florida. Couple of things to note about that movie. Every piece of equipment that you saw in there did not exist before 1999. It was developed within a two-year period and used on actual exploratory projects. This gadget you see right here was called the digital wall mapper, and it produced the first three-dimensional map anybody has ever done of a cave, and it happened to be underwater in Wakulla Springs. It was that gadget that serendipitously opened a door to another unexplored world.
This is Europa. Carolyn Porco mentioned another one called Enceladus the other day. This is one of the places where planetary scientists believe there is a highest probability of the detection of the first life off earth in the ocean that exists below there. For those who have never seen this story, Jim Cameron produced a really wonderful IMAX movie couple of years ago, called "Aliens of the Deep." There was a brief clip --
(Video) Narrator: A mission to explore under the ice of Europa would be the ultimate robotic challenge. Europa is so far away that even at the speed of light, it would take more than an hour for the command just to reach the vehicle. It has to be smart enough to avoid terrain hazards and to find a good landing site on the ice. Now we have to get through the ice. You need a melt probe. It's basically a nuclear-heated torpedo. The ice could be anywhere from three to 16 miles deep. Week after week, the melt probe will sink of its own weight through the ancient ice, until finally -- Now, what are you going to do when you reach the surface of that ocean? You need an AUV, an autonomous underwater vehicle. It needs to be one smart puppy, able to navigate and make decisions on its own in an alien ocean.
BS: What Jim didn't know when he released that movie was that six months earlier NASA had funded a team I assembled to develop a prototype for the Europa AUV. I mean, I cut through three years of engineering meetings, design and system integration, and introduced DEPTHX -- Deep Phreatic Thermal Explorer. And as the movie says, this is one smart puppy. It's got 96 sensors, 36 onboard computers, 100,000 lines of behavioral autonomy code, packs more than 10 kilos of TNT in electrical onboard equivalent. This is the target site, the world's deepest hydrothermal spring at Cenote Zacaton in northern Mexico. It's been explored to a depth of 292 meters and beyond that nobody knows anything. This is part of DEPTHX's mission. There are two primary targets we're doing here. One is, how do you do science autonomy underground? How do you take a robot and turn it into a field microbiologist? There are more stages involved here than I've got time to tell you about, but basically we drive through the space, we populate it with environmental variables -- sulphide, halide, things like that. We calculate gradient surfaces, and drive the bot over to a wall where there's a high probability of life. We move along the wall, in what's called proximity operations, looking for changes in color. If we see something that looks interesting, we pull it into a microscope. If it passes the microscopic test, we go for a collection. We either draw in a liquid sample, or we can actually take a solid core from the wall. No hands at the wheel. This is all behavioral autonomy here that's being conducted by the robot on its own. The real hat trick for this vehicle, though, is a disruptive new navigation system we've developed, known as 3D SLAM, for simultaneous localization and mapping. DEPTHX is an all-seeing eyeball. Its sensor beams look both forward and backward at the same time, allowing it to do new exploration while it's still achieving geometric sensor-lock on what it's gone through already.