New Titanic Expedition Sets Sail Today From Boston

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Argus is maneuvered by cranking the cables on the ship above and by activating thrusters that allow it to aim its massive spotlights and camera on the points of interest and on its companion Little Hercules.

Little Hercules is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). It is tethered to Argus via a 100-foot (30-meter) cable that allows the scientists onboard the ship to pilot the vehicle and operate Little Herc's high-definition video camera, as if they were sitting right next to it on the ocean floor. Little Herc's purpose is to gather high-quality images of the ship and artifacts.

Hercules is also an ROV, and armed with high-definition cameras and thrusters just like its cousin Little Herc. But Hercules is specially designed for excavation—digging and recovering artifacts. It has mechanical arms that can grab and dig as well as water jets and suction pipes to gently clear away mud and sand.

Natural Forces Eat Away at Wreck

Part of the NOAA mission will focus on deterioration due to natural causes. For instance, tiny microbes feed on the ship's iron, weakening her structure, and generating byproducts called rusticles. These formations, which are poorly understood, cling to the ship and resemble rusty icicles.

Understanding how quickly these structures form could reveal how long the Titanic will last.

Also at work are Toredo worms, actually mollusks, which have been munching away on all the ship's woodwork.

Hercules has probes and sensors to measure the water currents, temperature, and oxygen levels around the ship—these factors also alter the rates at which the ship and its many artifacts degrade.

Another purpose of this mission is to establish a set of guidelines for visiting sites like the Titanic. "We want to encourage visitation, just as we encourage people to go to the Arizona in Pearl Harbor, or go to Gettysburg," Ballard said.

"There really is only one Titanic, and as the Titanic goes, so will likely go all the rest of the world's historic shipwrecks," said Capt. Craig McLean, director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration. "If we can understand the best way to manage the Titanic and share that information, I think we'll be very successful."

First Virtual Underwater Museum

Ballard envisions that the Titanic site may become the first underwater museum, outfitted with lights and high-definition cameras and remotely operated robots that run on preprogrammed electronic highways, allowing even children to explore the ship in real time via the Internet from the safety of their home.

An expedition to Titanic, including a ship to take you out there and a submersible to take you down to the wreck, costs upward of about U.S. $30,000. Even then the visibility is limited to a view out of a very tiny porthole. But virtual tours are like watching football games on television, Ballard said.

"The better view's at home, because you have all those camera angles, you're got all those high-in-the-sky cameras, you're in the huddle, you hear things, you see things, you've got commentators," Ballard said. "So electronic travel and the electronic visitation of sites, I think, is going to be in many ways better than being there."

If Ballard gets his way, the Titanic underwater museum will be the first of many of these shipwreck museums around the world. After all, Titanic's story is well known, but there are countless, lesser-known wrecks that have had at least as great an impact on society.

"Who were the Phoenicians? Who were the Minoans? Who were the sea people? [of the Black Sea] We haven't been able to answer those questions based upon what we find on land, but we know [the answers are] out there," Ballard said. "We know that there are a lot of pieces of human history, chapters of human history that have been lost in the ocean but not lost forever. We can find them."

For more Titanic news, scroll down.

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