Japan embarks on journey to the centre of the Earth

Japanese scientists are preparing to dig deep inside the Earth for the first time in human history to unlock the mysteries of life in an attempt to figure out how civilisation came to be and how to save it.

The researchers will collect the first samples of the Earth’s mantle for clues on the primitive organisms that were the forerunners of life—and study tectonic plates that could shake the planet’s foundations.

“Deep underground—under high pressure, high temperature, with little air—is the environment similar to the time when the Earth was created? By collecting geological samples from there, we might find biological beings that might have existed when the Earth was born,” says Jun Fukutomi, an official with the Centre for Deep Earth Exploration (CDEX).

“Samples of the Earth’s mantle and crust will also tell us how the Earth’s climate has changed in the past. Analysis of these data should give us clues as to how the Earth’s environment will change in the future,” he says.

The government-backed CDEX will start training of the crew and scientists once the 57 500-tonne, deep-sea drilling vessel Chikyu is delivered at the end of July.

Chikyu, which means the Earth in Japanese, will embark on experimental voyages later this year.

The 60-billion-yen ($535-million) ship will begin full-scale drilling around the end of September 2007 at waters off the Pacific coast of Japan with an initial project to dig about 3 500m into a seabed that is about 2 500m under the

ocean surface.

The initial project will study the tectonic plate as it is an area where seismologists expect giant quakes within the next several decades. Japan accounts for a quarter of the world’s major tremors.

A deeper understanding of how earthquakes function “may help us forecast future quakes”, Fukutomi says.

Eventually, researchers hope to send Chikyu‘s drill pipes down to the sea bottom 4 000m underwater and dig 7 000m from there.

“Up until now, scientists have dug down for about 2 000m.
That’s like only scratching the surface,” Fukutomi says.

“This time, we hope to go deeper. Layers of sediment should tell us climate changes that the Earth has experienced and the component of the atmosphere at the time,” Fukutomi says.

The deep sea drilling project is a part of the multinational Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme, which is led by Japan and the United States, with participation from China and 12 European Union nations.

Oceanic drilling is preferred over land drilling because the crust at the sea bed is thinner and allows for deeper digs into the crust and mantle.

Chikyu uses technology that exists for oil drilling, but is specially equipped to prevent damage from sudden bursts if it accidentally strikes oil or gas reserves.

The drilling ship uses the satellite-based global positioning system to stay in one position.

Chikyu is also rigged with a system that keeps itself and its drill pipes stable by adjusting to the rolling motions from the drilling and waves.

The ship also carries a laboratory that can shut down the effects of the Earth’s magnetic fields to allow better observations.

The completion of the drilling vessel is a big step forward for scientists, Fukutomi says.

The researchers will eagerly look at the microbes found under the ocean floor because they may be key in studying how life began.

“We may take a step to better understanding the origin of life. They [the organisms] may be somehow related to the evolution of the Earth. This is one of the most important life science projects,” he says.

“We hope this project will be the start of a new era for life science.” - Sapa-AFP

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