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Images: R.I.P.  A.B.E

ABE is launched on the night of March 4, 2010, from the research vessel Melville for what turned out to be its final dive—to explore the Chile Triple Junction off the Chilean coast. Tending the lines are (clockwise from right): Al Duester, Tim Shank, Jim Dorrance, Sean Sylva, and Andy Billings.
(Photo by Noah Brookoff. Image courtesy of INSPIRE: Chile Margin 2010.)

ABE had reached the seafloor to begin its 222nd research mission when, in the early hours of March 5, 2010, all contact with the surface vessel abruptly ceased. Researchers believe one of the glass spheres used to keep the vehicle buoyant may have imploded catastrophically, leaving behind no traces of ABE beyond its empty cradle on the ship. (Photo by Noah Brookoff. Image courtesy of INSPIRE: Chile Margin 2010.)

Equipped with sonar, sensors, and cameras, ABE was a scout, cartographer, and bloodhound. It made high-resolution maps, “sniffed out” unusual chemicals emerging from the seafloor, and photographed biological communities and complex geological features. On a typical mission, it used all its capabilities.

First, ABE was programmed to “fly” about 250 meters above the seafloor using sensors measuring temperature, turbidity, and chemicals in the water to “sniff” plumes from hydrothermal vents. Then ABE was programmed to fly closer to the seafloor, making detailed maps of the seabed and, ideally, to intercept the stems of hot buoyant hydrothermal plumes of water rising up above the seafloor and home in on them. Finally, ABE was programmed to descend to right above the seabed and drive to and fro, very carefully—using techniques to avoid crashing into the rough rocky terrain—while taking photographs of seafloor features and deep-sea life.

 (Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Before ABE’s first deployment in the mid-1990s, two of its inventors, Al Bradley (left) and Dana Yoerger, tested the autonomous underwater vehicle in the test well at the WHOI dock in Woods Hole. Recognizing ABE’s coincidental resemblance to the Starship Enterprise, they playfully stenciled “NCC-1701” on ABE’s flanks—the same numbers that adorned the fictional Star Trek spaceship. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Painting with sonar, each brushstroke a “ping” of sound reflected off the seafloor, ABE created a seafloor map of Brothers Volcano about a mile deep in the Pacific Ocean and roughly 290 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand.
(Image courtesy of New Zealand American Submarine Ring of Fire 2007 Exploration, NOAA Vents Program, NOAA-OE)