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Project will try to drill down 6 km at the crust's thinnest location in the Pacific Ocean

It sounds like a plot of a science fiction movie.  But to Damon Teagle, a geochemistry professor at the UK's University of Southampton and "The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program" (IODP) co-leader, the ambitious effort to be the first humans to drill to the Earth's mantle is dead serious.

I. The Race to the Mantle

While many have long held that such an effort is infeasible given current technology and the expense involved, Professor Teagle and company hatched a bold scheme to venture out in one of three locations in the Pacific Ocean and use deep-sea drilling equipment to tunnel 6 km (3.7 miles) down, eventually hitting the mantle.

On land the Earth's crust is up to 60 km thick, making drilling to the mantle unlikely to succeed with today's technology.  But Professor Teagle is convinced that by using deep sea drilling at one of these locations (ocean ridges) where the crust is the thinnest, the mantle can be reached and sampled for "only" about $1B USD.

The effort will require 10 km-long (6.2 miles) drill pipes to drill through the ultra-hard rocks that are though to surround the mantle.

Croatian meteorologist Andrija Mohorovicic first discovered the Earth’s mantle-crust boundary.  The mantle is a 2,900 km layer of the Earth's onion-like composition.  Composed mostly of silicon dioxide (the same material that sand or semiconductors are made of), temperatures at the crust border range from 500 to 900 °C (932 to 1,652 °F).  The mantle, at its molten inner surface touches the Earth's molten nickel-iron core, where temperatures reach 4,000 °C (7,230 °F).

Professor Teagle calls the project "the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science", comparing it to the Apollo Program.  He says the project will serve to "inspire" future generations of scientists and will leave a "legacy of fundamental scientific knowledge" -- namely, giving a never-before-glimpsed look at representative mantle chemistry, temperatures, and pressure.  According to Professor Teagle, this would be a big step forward as we currently only have a "reasonable" of the Mantle's composition and behavior.

drill bit
The hardest challenge will be digging through the hard rocks closest to the mantle.
[Image Source: CNN]

He comments in a CNN interview, "[The mantle] is the engine that drives how our planet works and why we have earthquakes and volcanoes and continents. We have the textbook cartoons but detailed knowledge is lacking."

II. No Guarantees

The project will make use of a pre-existing Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel named Chikyu.  A hulking, lumbering ship Chikyu can carry up to 10 km of drilling pipes and set a scientific deep sea drilling world-record of 2.2 km in early testing.  The hole drilled by the IODP drills will be a mere 30 cm in diameter -- or roughly one foot wide.

Chikyu at sea
The Chikyu, at sea [Image Source: CNN]

Professor Teagle gives some perspective on how much a feat this is, commenting, "It will be the equivalent of dangling a steel string the width of a human hair in the deep end of a swimming pool and inserting it into a thimble 1/10 mm wide on the bottom, and then drilling a few meters into the foundations."

The drill bits will need to be replaced every 50 to 60 hours, and additionally special bits may need to be swapped to drill through ultra-hard near-mantle crust layer.  That means the project could take more than a year to complete, unless better drill bits can be produced.

Chikyu pipes
The Chikyu can carry up to 10 km worth of pipes. [Image Source: CNN]

The IODP is not the first effort to drill down to the mantle.  The first major attempt dates back to 1966 when a team of U.S. researchers drilled off the coast of the eastern Pacific's Guadalupe Island.  The project, dubbed "Project Mohole" in honor or Professor "Mo" Mohorovicic, reached only a few meters before it was abandoned.

A land-based project by the Russians in the 1980s in the Kola Peninsula drilled down 12 km into the Earth's crust, earning a record for deepest borehole that still stands.  Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) in 2011 drilled a longer borehole (12+ km) in Easter Russia, however the hole was drilled on an angle.

Thus to summarize how close man has came to drilling to the mantle yet, the best answer is "not very close".  

The ocean-based effort clearly provides an easier route that is within historic borehole depths (12 km).  However, the difficulties of drilling at sea and of penetrating the hard inner crust make success uncertain, even as Professor Teagle's team forges ahead.

Source: CNN

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By tim851 on 10/3/2012 4:14:25 PM , Rating: 3
"It will inspire future generations of scientists..."

Yeah, I'm sure there'll be lots of kids changing their dream future job from "astronaut" to "core driller". And just imagine all the new knowledge we'll be gaining from this drilling like maybe changing our estimated temperature of the mantle by 0.1 fahrenheit.

I'm for all kinds of stupid crap we do for science's sake, like lunar bases or super-colliders, but each of the dineros going into making this mission reality would be better spent on any other project. Even cold fusion research.

RE: Optimistic
By Ringold on 10/3/2012 4:39:05 PM , Rating: 2
That's what I thought too when I read it; what do they expect to find that they didn't already suspect?

At least money spent just about anywhere else has a decent likelihood of creating some truly unexpected result. Searching for gravity waves has turned in to an unexpected debate about a holographic universe, for example. Telescopes find unexpected things all the time, or look at things we know are there but don't at all know what details we'll find -- unlike the mantle. Bleeding edge medical research continually seems surprised by what it learns about how DNA, RNA, proteins, etc work.

Ah well. I just won't have this in the back of my mind as something I'm looking forward to, unlike, say, the James Webb Space Telescope, fusion, VASMIR, etc.

RE: Optimistic
By SPOOFE on 10/3/2012 4:43:18 PM , Rating: 3
what do they expect to find that they didn't already suspect?

Greater accuracy of current models, if nothing else. Maybe something new and unexpected? Maybe.

RE: Optimistic
By TSS on 10/4/2012 8:29:39 AM , Rating: 2
I'd rather they'd spend that $1 billion on exploring the ocean floor itself rather then what's beneath it. That way you'll be guarranteed to find new and unexpected things.

RE: Optimistic
By maugrimtr on 10/8/2012 5:25:53 AM , Rating: 2
I think it's sad that people think this is a waste of time. Drilling down to the mantle, taking samples, and observing it directly for the first time in history rather than indirect sources like volcanoes (not really representative since that's rapidly cooled), radar, and models (we're familiar with climate modelling and the controversy over its accuracy, right?).

Science often seems like a waste of time when examining the obvious but that's the beauty of science: assume nothing and question everything. Until there's a direct observation, we must make do with a best-fit explanation, i.e. a theory. The drilling is the experiment to see if what we find is what we expect...or whether we find something completely new.

Also, tiny pinpricks in the Earth do not create volcanoes...

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