By Sulagna Chattopadhyay
With the highest priority being accorded to a manned mission plummeting to 6,000-m below the unchartered depths of the Indian Ocean, India’s Deep Ocean Mission unequivocally seems well on its way to glory. A Rs 4,000 crore allocation over a five year period, as outlined in the FY22 Budget, would certainly help innovate better, doing away with the technological roadblocks that are holding back the nation’s brave hearts waiting to dive down.
India’s Deep Ocean Mission is of course more than just an underwater manned mission. As outlined in Report 332 of Parliamentary S&T Standing Committee (March-2020), the Deep Ocean Mission framework entails the inclusion of six broad components. The first outlines the development of technologies for underwater vehicles and robotics to assist deep-sea mining. Some of the major resources ocean floors offer are polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich manganese crust, hydrothermal deposits and gas hydrates. Of these, only gas hydrates are found in India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in mineable quantities in the order of ~950 trillion cubic m.
The second involves ocean climate advisories that envisage to determine the extent ocean-atmosphere coupling influence the climate of the sub-continent. With the unprecedented warming of the oceanic waters, nuanced research and data management are required. At present, oceanic data is managed by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) through its Digital Ocean and allied frameworks.
The third component includes research on deep-sea biodiversity, an area of work that has made little headway till now. The list of Deep Ocean Mission activities continues with deep ocean survey and exploration, energy and freshwater from the ocean, with the establishment of an advanced marine biology station at Goa completing the spectrum of envisaged exploits.
To ensconce three humans in a 4.1 m diameter titanium sphere with a comfortable air pressure of 1 atmosphere (atm) amidst 600 atm oceanic waters, India will now need to earnestly ready itself. The manned expedition Samudrayan is a collaborative project across institutes-the pressure capsule of Matsya 6000 being developed by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the intricate workings of the vehicle by National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT). Likely to be certified by Norway’s DNV-GL, Matsya’s deepwater trials are to commence in 2024. This project’s success would catapult India into the ranks of US, Russia, France, Japan, and China. The budgetary outlay for the Deep Ocean Mission, pending for almost half a decade, finding sudden credence above many other critical concerns in the current context, perhaps does not bear any relation to China’s successful dive of 10,000 m into the Mariana Trench in the winter of 2020. The rising crescendo of China’s deep-sea manned expedition, the first of which was successfully commissioned way back in 2012, seems to be just a mere coincidence.
The Chennai-based NIOT in just three years since its establishment in 1993, devised a remotely operable deepwater crawler to test mine the seafloor at a depth of 410 m off the coast of India. The crawler was to explore 75,000 sq km seafloor allocated in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) by the International Sea Bed Authority (ISA), the United Nations in 1987 for polymetallic nodules. Consequent decades saw the addition of a collector, crusher and a flexible riser to pump polymetallic nodules to the surface-tested at a depth of 3,400 m in the Bay of Bengal as late as 2019.
Although the crawler is yet to access the 5,50m seafloor in the CIOB in an indeterminate timeframe, being abandoned on-site a couple of times due to volatile sea conditions, there are to NIOT’s credit two remotely operable vehicles that have seen operational success. The first is the soil tester, the deepest ever Indian probe that additionally managed to relay photographs of the CIOB seafloor, and second is the Rosub 6000. The latter completed its field trials in the depths of CIOB way back in 2010 and helped collect samples of the polymetallic nodule and hydrothermal sulphides, apart from gas hydrates off India’s EEZ.
The allocation of Rs 4,000 crore against the required Rs 6,687.5 crore, for the Deep Ocean Mission that was outlined by the ministry of earth sciences (MoES) last year is a welcome addition to up India’s research needs. Downsizing two elements of the Mission, the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) component, and the ocean climate advisory unit, the budgetary requirement for the Mission was honed to address the technological aspects of deep-sea mining. Although the mission entails a sizeable enhancement of MoES’s profile, its intended need in this hour raises a few questions.
MoES’s argument that India is falling behind in ocean research and that countries such as the US and Japan are not very forthcoming in sharing their technology rouses India’s drive to better science. However, unconfirmed reports point towards the thwarting of Russia’s lowest technology transfer bid about five years ago. For about Rs 350 crore the Russians were willing to share the know-how to enable manned missions, learning from which would have not only saved India time but also its precious resources.
Robotics and crawler deployment in the CIOB can help build India’s technical capacity to commercially mine polymetallic nodules in the future. With the CIOB being granted for exploration for an initial 15 year period, followed by a five-year extension ending in 2022 it is likely that once ISA’s comprehensive draft exploitation regulations are formalised, India may get an opportunity to even mine the region. While there may be a long pause before ISA issues a mining license to India, the more readily available gas hydrates within the Krishna-Godavari basin under the Bay of Bengal, capable of making India energy secure, seem to have been largely relegated to the background.
Scientists cite technological hurdles in gas hydrate extractions with their beds lying about 200 m below the seabed, not to mention that they see little role for themselves in a fuel-driven discourse. In fact, MoES has been distancing itself from the gas hydrate programme for over a decade now, evident from the closure of the DST-MOES Indo-Russian gas hydrate centre way back in 2013 at NIOT. Although Russia (Lake Baikal region) and Japan (Nankai Trough seabed) have been able to generate fuel from the gas hydrate, India National Gas Hydrate Programme, under the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH) is still at a nascent exploratory stage with only a fair degree of mapping to its credit. Despite an extensive deposit of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari basin, the resource remains unlinked to the Deep Ocean Mission.
Amidst this technology-driven Mission framework for prioritising mineral exploration through manned and unmanned robotics, stands the anomaly of establishing an advanced marine biology station at Goa. Reportedly located in ONGC’s Cabo De Rama campus, the centre has even forged a collaboration with Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) France. The first three-year phase of the Mission starting 2021 outlines the need to prepare a repository for deep-sea fauna DNA among five other activities. This dilution is baffling and mandates further review.
It is perhaps also important to explore why the Deep Ocean Mission has not addressed the need for satellite deployment for India’s data buoys placed in international waters to study ocean parameters for climate studies. As of now these buoys are uplinked to foreign satellites, such as the Advanced Research and Global Observation Satellite (ARGOS), Inmarsat and Iridium, and suffer data compatibility issues with buoys located in the Indian waters and uplinked to ISRO’s INSAT.
In a paper published by NIOT scientists, crewed underwater vehicles are envisaged to make oceans habitable, with the immediate spin-off of enabling tourism and ocean literacy. An Atlantis-Varuna ocean residency is enigmatic no doubt, but whether it will lead to realtime industry and employment generating activities beyond research, remains in question.
Finally, all the Deep Ocean Mission seems to offer is an amplification of all its former activities with the formal onboarding of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Pivoted through NIOT, the showstopper of the Mission is likely to be the Matsya 6000, provided the fund flow remains smooth.
Author is President, SaGHAA, a think tank working on Polar issues