SEATTLE -- The University of Washington research ship Tommy Thompson sits a the end of Pier 91 and is getting ready to sail in a few days.
On board is a portion of the 570 miles of fiber optic cable that will turn the ocean floor off the northwest coast into a research paradise, and not just for scientists. The public will also be able to watch high definition video of hot volcanic vents and unusual sea life in real time starting in 2015. The public may even be invited to help with research.
The project is part of a broader Ocean Observatories Initiative. It's the larger of two such observatories, with one operating off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.
The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is expected to be fully operational by early 2015. Next summer the Tommy Thompson will head back into the Pacific to hook up the sensors, cameras and other equipment to those fiber optic cables, that will study undersea volcanic activity, earthquake risks, ocean chemistry and biology.
Canadians are also playing a major role in the UW portion of the project. The Canadian based ROPOS remotely operated vehicle or ROV is on board. Capable of descending to 17,000 feet, it will hook up the fiber optic cables to a main backbone cable laid last summer.
A non-profit organization known as the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility owns and operates ROPOS and is based in Sidney on Vancouver Island.
Total funding for the project, including an expected congressional contribution, will total $239 million.