It has been around for nearly four decades, but it may be one of the Navy’s best kept secrets: a small nuclear-powered submarine that has been plying the world’s oceans on scientific missions.
One of its latest expeditions was in the Gulf of Mexico, where it helped a group of geologists, biologists and marine archeologists explore one of the nation’s 13 protected ocean sanctuaries, the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, 115 miles off the coast of Texas and Louisiana.
They are intent on finding evidence of human habitation dating back to the last Ice Age. At that time the area was above sea level.
“It’s really a needle in the haystack, and that’s why we’re so happy to have the NR-1 [naval research vessel], that can roll along the bottom constantly,” said Robert Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration and professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.
“We’re confident something’s out there. The question is, are we going to be able to find it?” he said.
During its weeklong exploration, the 150-foot submarine charted ancient shorelines, hovered above exploding mud volcanoes once thought to be extinct and gathered volumes of data, said Cmdr. Enrique Panlilio, commanding officer of NR-1. Outfitted with sonar equipment, lights and cameras, the submarine and its 11-person crew worked in concert with scientists aboard the Carolyn Chouest, the sub’s accompanying commercial surface vessel, which towed a remotely operated vehicle called Argus to sites identified as potential areas for detailed probing.
“The science we conducted and the data we collected will be analyzed by the researchers involved in the projects for a long time to come,” wrote Panlilio in an email from aboard the sub.
However, the submarine’s days gliding in the ocean depths are coming to an end.
Home-ported in Groton, Conn., the NR-1 is scheduled to be inactivated late next year, Panlilio said. The submarine is reaching the end of its lifespan and by September 2008, it will go into a lengthy inactivation process during which its nuclear reactor will be cut out and shipped to a storage facility in the Northwest, said Phil McGuinn, a spokesman for the Navy’s Submarine Force Atlantic.
“NR-1 has made significant contributions to the Navy as well as the scientific research community over its time. We will not have that tool in the future, but we’re all working within the constraints of fiscal reality as we move forward,” he said.
NR-1 follows in the footsteps of the USS Dolphin, a diesel-electric submarine that was decommissioned in September. Used for research and development, test and evaluation purposes, the Dolphin was built in 1968 and underwent a $50 million repair and upgrade in 2002. The Navy in 2006 decided to decommission the vessel, citing her $18 million annual operational costs.
For the scientific community, losing the NR-1 is a blow to undersea research.
“I’ve used this submarine over the years, and it’s the finest mapping machine,” said Ballard. “I wish the Navy were not retiring it.”
Panlilio added, “Scientists aboard the NR-1 were highly enthusiastic about the imagery we were collecting.”
Though remotely operated underwater vehicles may not have all the same tools and capabilities of the research submarine, they are a cheaper alternative, said McGuinn.
But cheaper doesn’t necessarily translate to better.
With its powerful sensors, high maneuverability and endurance, the NR-1 in the Gulf expedition covered a swath of real estate that was orders of magnitude greater than anything a tethered vehicle like Argus could have hoped to explore in the same amount of time, wrote Panlilio.
“We are talking about square miles versus square meters,” he said.
“Argus and other similar camera sleds are great tools, but they can’t search like NR-1. The net they cast is only as wide as the field of view of their camera.”
Though there are no plans to replace the NR-1, ocean researchers will soon have a Navy surveillance ship — the USS Capable — for scientific expeditions. The Capable was transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2004 and is in the process of being converted for ocean exploration beginning next spring. Renamed the Okeanos Explorer, it will be the nation’s first federal ship dedicated solely to ocean exploration. Initial plans show the ship will be at sea for 10 months a year.
But having a surface ship is not the same as having a submarine like NR-1 that can dive 3,000 feet below the sea in the name of science.
“It’s sad that that ship is not being replaced, because the bottom of the ocean remains unmapped,” said Ballard.
Scientists meanwhile appear to be clamoring for access to NR-1, which has a backlog of mission requests. According to Panlilio, the NR-1 will be “extremely busy” right up to the day she enters the shipyard for inactivation.
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