TOKYO — Japanese scientists are preparing to dig deep inside the Earth for the first time to figure out how life developed 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,” said Jun Fukutomi, an official with the Center 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 said.
The government-backed CDEX will start training the crew and scientists soon, once the 57,500-ton, deep-sea drilling vessel Chikyu is delivered.
Chikyu, which means “the Earth” in Japanese, will begin experimental voyages later this year.
The $535 million vessel will begin full-scale drilling about the end of September 2007 off the Pacific coast of Japan with an initial project to dig about 2 miles into a seabed that is more than 1.55 miles beneath the ocean surface.
The initial project will study the tectonic plate, 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,” Mr. Fukutomi said.
Researchers hope eventually to send Chikyu’s drill pipes down to the sea bottom 2.5 miles underwater, and dig down 4.5 miles into the Earth from there.
“Up until now, scientists have dug down for about 1.2 miles. That’s like only scratching the surface,” Mr. Fukutomi said.
“This time, we hope to go deeper. Layers of sediment should tell us climate changes that the Earth has experienced and the components of the atmosphere at the time.”
The deep-sea drilling project is a part of the multinational Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, which is led by Japan and the United States, with participation from China and 12 nations of the European Union.
Oceanic drilling is preferred to land drilling because the crust at the seabed is thinner and allows for deeper digs into the crust and mantle.
Chikyu uses technology that is used in oil drilling, but is specially equipped to prevent damage from sudden bursts if it accidentally strikes oil or gas deposits.
The drilling ship uses the satellite-based Global Positioning System to stay in one position.
Chikyu also is rigged with a system that keeps itself and its drill pipes stable by adjusting to the rolling motions from the drilling and waves. Furthermore, the ship carries a laboratory that can shut down the effects of the Earth’s magnetic fields to allow better observations.
Completion of the drilling vessel is a big step forward for scientists, Mr. Fukutomi said.
The researchers will examine 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. [The organisms] may be somehow related to the evolution of the Earth. This is one of the most important life-science projects,” he said.
“We hope this project will be the start of a new era for life science.”