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23 June 2010

US, Indonesia explore deep sea

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The United States and Indonesia prepare to explore one of the world's last frontiers, an adventure that researchers hope could lead to cures for diseases and help in predicting deadly tsunamis in Indonesian waters.

Scientists portray the trip to Indonesian waters as a throwback to a time when explorers blazed new trails into unknown territory.

The expedition, which is set to begin Thursday and wrap up in early August, is the maiden voyage for a high-tech U.S. science ship and the first joint deep-sea exploration by Indonesia and the United States.

Scientists will use a powerful sonar mapping system and a robotic vehicle equipped with high-definition video cameras to explore hundreds of square miles (kilometers) north of the Indonesian archipelago, providing an extraordinary glimpse of one of the globe's most diverse, complex and little-known marine ecosystems.

"The world's oceans are great mysteries to us, but there are few greater mysteries than this area in Indonesia that we're going to be exploring," Craig McLean, the official responsible for the execution of ocean exploration at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Indeed, while a dozen men have been to the moon and back, only two have explored the deepest ocean and returned to tell the tale. This voyage won't be adding to that list; an unmanned, remote-controlled vessel will be exploring the deep sea.

But it will illuminate a little known part of the world.

Probing the ocean's depths is a costly, and potentially dangerous, affair, with only a relatively small number of countries and research centers investing in the effort. NOAA takes part in several international missions a year, but officials describe this one as its most complex.

A major goal is to create a high-resolution map of the ocean floor that will allow scientists to better understand how tsunamis form and spread and to make more accurate models to forecast earthquake-spawned waves in the future. The region straddles a series of fault lines, making it very seismically active. In 2004, a tsunami off Indonesia's western coast killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

Indonesia's Minister for Marine Affairs and Fisheries Fadel Muhammad said scientists also want to explore ecosystems living around underwater volcanoes, some of which remain active.


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