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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Marine explorer Ballard announces initiatives to make URI the global headquarters for ocean explorations

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

R.I. bond referendum 9 to play key role

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. -- October 13, 2004 -- The University of Rhode Island and marine explorer Robert Ballard today announced several major initiatives to make URI the global headquarters for exploring the world's oceans.

Ballard reported that he has secured more than $2 million in new federal and private funds for the technology to operate the Inner Space Center, which he describes as the ocean equivalent of the NASA command center for space exploration.

The Inner Space Center is a component of the Undersea Exploration Center that will be voted on in the bond referendum on Election Day. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration, this center will be linked to several research vessels using the latest in telecommunications technology.

"Our mission is to be the command center for ocean exploration, and the Inner Space Center will be the heart of this activity," said Ballard, URI professor of oceanography. "It's going to bring tremendous benefits to the people of the state of Rhode Island."

In the Inner Space Center, signals from research vessels on the ocean will be transmitted through a satellite telecommunication system to a replica of the shipboard control center at URI's Graduate School of Oceanography. The center will include workstations linked to Internet1 and Internet2 to provide students, faculty and researchers with live access to oceanographic expeditions.

"We need to get moving on this now so we're so far ahead of the game that no other institution can catch up to us," Ballard said.

The satellite technology is being installed on the Endeavor -- the URI-based oceanographic research ship -- as well as on the USNS Capable, a former Navy vessel that was turned over to NOAA this year for use as its chief ship of exploration. A third satellite system will be available as a "mobile" unit that can be used from a wide variety of locations, both on land and sea.

Ballard's most recent exploration, a return visit to the Titanic last June, was conducted aboard the NOAA vessel Ronald H. Brown, which he is using as a "practice ship" to develop and perfect the technology that will ultimately be installed on the Capable in 2007. The next test of the technology will be on a 70-day, broad investigation of the geology and biology of the western region of the North Atlantic in the summer of 2005, much of which will be transmitted live from the R/V Brown using Inner Space Center technology.

The new funding from NOAA, the JASON Foundation, and the Sea Research Foundation will equip a production studio in the center that will be linked to every school in Rhode Island, as well as to select schools and Boys and Girls Clubs around the country, so formal and informal educational programming can be offered live. The production studio will also be linked to the Smithsonian Institution's planned $60 million ocean pavilion in Washington, D.C., as well as to other sites around the country. Working with Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, the Inner Space Center's joint production facility will transmit live programming to aquariums and science centers all across the country.

In addition, the National Geographic Society and others have agreed to provide $2 to $3 million over the next five years so Ballard can continue his archaeological explorations in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. He has already conducted several expeditions to the region and found a significant number of ancient shipwrecks.

NOAA and the Sea Research Foundation have also committed $250,000 to construct a vehicle support facility on URI's Narragansett Bay Campus where Ballard's team of researchers and engineers can design, build and test the remotely-operated underwater vehicles he uses in his explorations.

"I've been doing this kind of research for years, and some may say I'm somewhat jaded, but the Inner Space Center project really gives me tingles," Ballard said. "We're essentially building the ground floor of the Houston Space Center for ocean exploration. It's incredibly exciting."

The Inner Space Center and all of Ballard's technology and initiatives will be based in the Undersea Exploration Center, which will be constructed beginning in 2005 pending voter approval of bond referendum 9. Approval of the referendum will authorize $14 million for the Center's construction and for the renovation and expansion of the Pell Marine Science Library, which is also on the Bay Campus. In addition to the Inner Space Center, these facilities will house a central computing facility, new academic offices, laboratory space, and administrative offices.