The best way for students to catch a glimpse of undersea life has almost always been a field trip to the aquarium. But within a few years, teachers could have a new technology resource at their disposal that turns part of the Pacific Ocean into a round-the-clock observation tank accessible from school computer labs.

Labeled the NEPTUNE Project—for Northeast Pacific Time Series Undersea Networked Experiments—this University of Washington-led initiative would place nearly 2,000 miles of fiber-optic cable deep below the water’s surface in an effort to record marine life as it exists in its natural habitat. The images would be streamed in real time to classrooms, museums, and laboratories nationwide, letting students and scientists press their fingers to the glass 24 hours a day.

Cable Node with Axial Highlight“We think there is a real opportunity for those scientists interested in education and outreach to bring people generally, including young children, along on this adventure,” said John Madden, vice chairman of the project’s executive team.

It’s an adventure, Madden says, that would provide critical data for scientists as well as interactive activities for students, covering everything from the migration patterns of salmon to the reasons earthquakes sometimes result from the shifting of tectonic plates.

Installation of the massive fiber-optic cable infrastructure—a joint venture between researchers in the United States and Canada—would take place just over the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off the coast of Portland, Ore.

Using the ultra high-speed backbone of Internet2 (I2)—which can transmit information a hundred times faster than a T-1 connection to the current internet—the system would provide real-time data and imagery to shore-based locations. It also would allow scientists to control submarines and other robotic vehicles remotely from land and might serve as a test bed for remote sensors designed to explore other areas of the solar system.

Although NEPTUNE is primarily a research endeavor meant to yield results that improve scientists’ understanding of the environment, Madden said its implications for education and outreach also are important. That’s because NEPTUNE marks the first time any major scientific project has set out to stream images of underwater life in real time to K-12 classrooms.

Once the project is operational, Madden said he expects a team of educators to spearhead efforts that will transform the multi-million dollar scientific investment into a never-before-tapped educational resource. “We envision a group of specialists in education—who have an interest in the sea—will prepare materials for schools,” he said.

Although he is not sure yet what those resources would be, Madden said they are likely to include everything from carefully crafted lesson plans on oceanography and fish migration to interactive activities that invite children to observe the work of oceanographers and other scientists in progress.

According to the project’s web site, students also would be able to participate in activities designed to highlight the expanded role of technology in research; explain the limits and origins of life; observe endangered sea creatures; understand plate dynamics and underwater volcanoes; study the effect of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere; and learn how evidence supplied by marine life can aid in the search for new life in outer space.

In collaboration with teams of researchers from local universities, students might even be able to control undersea exploratory equipment from their desktop computers using still-in-development I2 technologies.

But apart from its value as an educational tool, Madden said the real thrust of the project comes from its potential for scientific discovery.

Until NEPTUNE, he said, the study of oceanography was conducted largely on an expeditionary basis, meaning that scientists had to go out into the field to collect data and then return home to complete analyses of their findings. With NEPTUNE, however, 24-hour visual contact with the ocean floor would provide researchers with the time-series data they need to better understand what changes occur in between such expeditions.

Still, the project has a long way to go before its full potential is realized and can be tapped by schools. “It’s not really well-developed at this point,” Madden said. “There’s going to be an enormous amount of data coming out of this pipe.”

Currently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California is making use of a $7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to head up another project called the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), which Madden called a “test bed” for technologies to be used in the NEPTUNE Project.

MARS resembles a scaled-down version of the NEPTUNE vision and involves the installation of 39.5 miles of cable in California’s Monterey Bay some 4,000 feet below surface level. The cable will be used to transfer data underwater and provide power for a number of small electronic devices, cameras, and sensors that will help researchers study marine life throughout the bay.

Madden called MARS “a sister project” to the much larger NEPTUNE model. “It’s very much aimed at helping us learn some of the lessons we need to learn before the NEPTUNE Project goes in,” he said.

To date, NEPTUNE itself remains more of an ambitious concept than an operational infrastructure. While a good part of the funding for the project has been approved in Canada, Madden said directors are still unclear as to how much money has been earmarked for approval in the United States budget.

In total, the project is expected to cost an estimated $250 million. If all goes according to plan, Madden said it could be up and running as early as 2006.