It’s the only deep-diving research submersible in the United States, and nearly 50 years after its first expedition it’s getting an upgrade.
Take an exclusive tour of the Alvin submarine, and see how the updated vessel is continuing to push the boundaries of deep-water exploration
From Wired by Jeffrey Marlow
After 50 years of cutting-edge seafloor exploration, the Alvin submersible—renegade deep-sea explorer for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute—just got a long-deserved makeover.
Alvin is the United States’ only deep-diving manned submersible used for science, so its upgrades will have a serious impact on the discoveries we can pull off in the deep.
For two generations, the human-occupied submersible Alvin has helped scientists expand human knowledge of the ocean and inspired countless to learn more about the ocean.
This year, Alvin turns 50, and we want you to help us celebrate.
To make a tricked-out sub, engineers first had to build a new personnel sphere, the titanium orb that protects the sub’s three passengers—one pilot, two scientists—from the crushing pressure of the water above them.
Metalworkers cast two perfect hemispheres, 6 feet in diameter, and welded them together with an electron beam.
Structural tests showed the sphere was safe to dive up to 6,500 meters below the surface, which opens up 98 percent of the seafloor to exploration.
Archive (1965) : new submarine to observe oceans depths
After the sphere was finished, engineers built a new chasse around it, outfitted with improved tech for the scientists inside.
Five HD cameras—up from three on Alvin’s previous iteration—record the scene for later analysis. Those cameras can see further, too, thanks to the high-intensity LEDs that ring the sub.
And more and larger viewports provide overlapping fields of view, which allow scientists and pilots to coordinate sample collection with the sub’s robotic arms.
Those arms, by the way, got an upgrade too: They have a new shoulder joint that extends their reach to grab awkwardly placed samples.
Once the team has snagged the right rocks, sediment, and animal specimens, they’re dumped on the bulked-up sampling platform, which can carry more than twice Alvin’s previous load to the surface.
The technological upgrades on the U.S. Navy-owned Alvin submersible allow the deep-sea diving vessel to go to new depths.
Reaching 98 percent of the sea floor, the submarine is able to explore complex hydrothermal vents and ecosystems.
After a full day’s work exploring the ocean’s depths, the new Alvin rises to the surface, anticipating a pick-up from its mother ship, the research vessel Atlantis.
With the new brighter hue on the sub’s carbon fiber sail—the same international orange used on the Golden Gate Bridge—the ship has no trouble spotting it in the water.
A faster recovery means a quicker route to the shipboard cold room, where precious samples are preserved.
On shore, a giddy group of scientists will be waiting to start their analysis.
- GeoGarage blog : Ocean science giant Alvin set for upgrade / Probing the ocean's undiscovered depths / Unprecedented impact of Deepwater Horizon on deep ocean revealed / The last dive? Funding for human expeditions in the ocean may have run aground
- NPR : Alvin, the little submarine that could