Ocean Exploration: Technology

Ocean Exploration: Technology

What drives astronomers to ask, “What’s out there?” and oceanographers, “What’s down there?” Despite covering 71 percent of the planet, only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored. Now more than ever in human history, tools and technologies are providing oceanographers and astronomers with increasing opportunities to explore the depths of the ocean and the expanse of space.


6 - 12+


Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Astronomy, Oceanography, Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Oceanography is an interdisciplinary science integrating the fields of geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering to explore the ocean. Oceanography is a relatively young field of science. The era of formal oceanographic studies began with the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition (1872-1876), the first voyage to comprehensively collect data related to ocean temperatures, chemistry, currents, marine life, and seafloor geology.

Modern oceanography did not begin until World War II, when the U.S. Navy wanted to learn more about the oceans to gain advantages in communicating across the Atlantic and implementing submarine warfare. By the late 1950s and ’60s, underwater vehicles, known as submersibles, revolutionized oceanographic exploration. Today, buoys and water column samplers are used to monitor sea surface conditions and water quality factors, coring devices collect sediment samples, sonar helps create maps of the seafloor, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) allow us to safely and efficiently explore all parts of the ocean. As ocean exploration increases and technology advances, so does our understanding of the way the ocean functions and supports life on Earth.

Astronomy is an interdisciplinary science as well, but it focuses on the study of space beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The more recent advancements in space exploration have greatly expanded the field of astronomy.

With safety, cost, and efficiency as top priorities, the manner in which ocean and space exploration have progressed continues to evolve. We have seen a technological transition from manned submersibles and spacecraft to satellites, ROVs, and extraterrestrial probes and rovers. Advances in remote sensing, satellite communication, and data collection, including sampling devices and live video feeds, allow experts from across the globe to connect and share information in real time.

Despite all of these technological advances, there is still so much more to learn and explore. It is difficult to predict what space and ocean exploration will look like in the future. An interesting point to contemplate regarding future exploration comes from Dr. Robert Ballard: “The generation of kids in middle schools right now will explore more of Earth than all previous generations combined. Let that sink in. They're going to explore more of Earth than everyone that's been on this planet before them. That’s pretty cool.”

Fast Fact

On August 6, 2012, NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, safely landed and marked the beginning of the most extensive and technologically advanced exploration of the Martian surface. Equipped with drills, sensors, imaging and sampling devices, and a range of other tools, Curiosity provides data that help scientists determine whether or not Mars can provide a habitat suitable for life, either past or present.

Fast Fact

At 10.99 kilometers (6.83 miles), the Challenger Deep is the deepest known point on the seafloor. It is located in the Mariana Trench near Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Only two manned submersibles have ever reached the Challenger Deep. On January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended in the Trieste for nearly five hours to reach the bottom. On March 26, 2012, James Cameron descended in the Deepsea Challenger for nearly two-and-a-half hours to reach the bottom.

Fast Fact

Led by Dr. Robert Ballard and Dr. Katherine Croff Bell in 2012, the Nautilus Expedition carried out a series of geological, biological, archaeological, and chemical mapping projects of the seafloor in the Black Sea, Aegean Sea and Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of Turkey and Cyprus. Their main ROVs, Hercules and Argus, were used to explore the seafloor with high-definition video and collect important measurements and samples. The Nautilus Expedition used state of the art remote sensing and satellite communication technology to connect researchers across the globe and in real time.

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Angela M. Cowan, Education Specialist and Curriculum Designer
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
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Winn Brewer, National Geographic Education
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Corbis Motion
Katy Andres
Julie Brown, National Geographic Society
Alison Michel, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 29, 2024

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