Google's Schmidt casts off on $60m ocean volcano mission

Google may be busy indexing everything it can find online, but a $60m project to quantify a slightly more unusual location – an undersea volcano – has begun today as the Falkor sets sail. The 272-foot research vessel, funded by the Schmidt Ocean Science Institute co-founded by Google chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, left San Francisco today, the SF Chronicle reports, headed to the eastern Pacific with its compliment of remote submarines, lab equipment, and a full sauna.

The latter may not be standard ocean-going fare – unless you're on a luxury cruise – but is apparently one of the additions Wendy Schmidt has made to the equipment list. There's also a fully-decorated library with luxury seating, more reminiscent perhaps of Captain Nemo's Nautilus lounge.

Still, you can't fault the Falcor's more traditional kit. The ship has a 2-ton submarine, dubbed the "Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science" (ROPOS), which it can lower into the water using a dedicated crane.

Once in, the ROPOS will set to work with drills and other instruments, beaming back live images of what's dubbed a dead-zone of the seafloor near Vancouver Island. That's the ship's first mission, in fact; to figure out what is causing the cyclical lack of oxygen in the water there. Suggestions have been made that it could be climate change that's to blame, though there are also suspicions of pollution from those on land.

After that, the crew will travel to the Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano where they will examine bacteria living in the porous carbon rocks and the ways that they gather energy.

The research crew itself is made up of peer-selected scientists, who put forward potential projects to be judged. The Schmidts' institute pays for the research costs, bar the researcher's own salaries.

Previous sailings have seen the Falkor used to examine the deep-sea effects of climate change, as well as testing a way of autonomously and non-invasively recovering tissue samples from fish and other creatures at the extreme depths.