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The Green Blog

ABE, the Woods Hole robot who explored the deep blue sea, is lost off coast of Chile

March 15, 2010

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Excerpts from the Globe’s environmental blog.

ABE, we hardly knew you
It was one of the first successful, unmanned, free-swimming ocean robots. But now, the 15-year-old autonomous benthic explorer — lovingly called ABE by those who designed, built, and operated “him’’ at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — is gone, lost off the coast of Chile March 5.

Researchers on the vessel Melville lost all contact with the autonomous vehicle on its 222d dive. Best guess what happened? A catastrophic implosion of one of the glass spheres used to keep ABE buoyant. If that happened, the pressure at 1.86 miles down — 2 tons per square inch — would have caused all of ABE’s other spheres to implode, leaving it unable to surface.

The loss had nothing to do with earthquake activity off Chile, researchers said.

ABE was brought out of retirement (its replacement, Sentry, was on another expedition) for the trip to the Chile Triple Junction, the only place where a midocean ridge is being pushed beneath a continent in a deep ocean trench.

On its first dive, ABE detected evidence of hydrothermal vents and was journeying to the location again on its second dive.

ABE, launched in 1995, ushered in a new era of deep sea vehicles that could operate without a tether to the surface, according to researchers. It “revolutionized deep-sea exploration by expanding scientists’ abilities to reach into the deep,’’ said Chris German, National Deep-Submergence facility chief scientist and a cochief scientist for the Chile Triple Junction expedition.

In 2006, the editors of Wired magazine called ABE one of their 50 best robots ever, a mix of real and fictional robots.

“ABE was a vehicle that we’ll always have fond memories of — it was a world-beater in its day,’’ German said. “In a way, it’s fitting that its demise comes on the job.’’

BETH DALEY

Earth Day challenge starts
Several Massachusetts organizations have partnered to launch a campaign to encourage the state’s residents to pledge to reduce their electricity costs by 5 percent before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.

The goal of the Commonwealth Challenge is not only to save 100,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, but to influence legislation.

A recently proposed bill sets a goal of creating a task force to pursue 100 percent clean electricity and increase the number of green jobs in Massachusetts by 2020.

ANDREA RUEDY TRIMBLE