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Dateline: 2067

Setting: A research base at the bottom of the Marianas Trench

Depth: 10,000 meters.

Mission Duration: Thirty days

A research base lies at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, housing 10-12 scientists of both sexes and a cat.

The mission starts well, the team have trained together for months, and they're tight knit. At least they thought they were...

One by one, they start to die, and it becomes obvious that their deaths are not accidental.

Question:

What would be a reasonable prime purpose of this research mission? For what reason would a dozen scientists be sent to the bottom of the ocean for a month where a robot/scans would not be appropriate?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 17 '17 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ Though the core plot of the story may be different from yours, have you looked at Sphere (there's also a book by M Crichton, which is arguably even better). It basically explores this setting to a tee, although Sphere's plot ends up being more scifi than you'd likely want. But I think you'll find it a valuable resource for general interactions between crew members, and how paranoia about each other festers in silence. $\endgroup$ – Flater Nov 17 '17 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ People climb mountains "because they are there". Maybe people go into the Marianas Trench "because it's not there". $\endgroup$ – tj1000 Nov 17 '17 at 18:01

14 Answers 14

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Mars practice.

I hope someone remembers Pauly Shore and Biodome, and thinks about that movie often. In any case, a reasonable premise for this deep sea mission could be practice for a prolonged space mission on the moon, Mars or elsewhere. This was the original goal behind Biosphere 2: a contained environment where teams could practice for long extraterrestrial assignments.


One could make a case that the ISS could better serve in this role but there are any number of reasons why a practice run like this might not be doable in the ISS. Maybe ISS is reserved for months in advance, or the microgravity means it is a poor simulation, or it does not allow cats.

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    $\begingroup$ To anyone who clicks that Wikipedia page, let me save you the disappointment - it's not a sequel to the Pauly Shore movie. $\endgroup$ – MikeTheLiar Nov 15 '17 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ The bottom of the Marianas Trench is not very much similar to Mars, so that would be pointless. However it would be a great practise run for an expedition to Jupiter or Saturn. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 15 '17 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ By 2067 Mars will be old hat. Maybe it is Martian-born humans who have their eyes on Saturn and have come back to run this project? $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 15 '17 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @mikeTheLiar Aww. I had my hopes up. $\endgroup$ – Pabru Nov 15 '17 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Will: I think we can push this answer even further. The number of places on ISS/a Mars mission are very limited... so why not use the Marianas Trench as a screening. Put 12 scientists there, may the best (last?) 6 go to Mars! If this does not ratchet the tension they already felt... $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Nov 16 '17 at 9:07
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What would be a reasonable prime purpose of this research mission? For what reason would a dozen scientists be sent to the bottom of the ocean for a month?

Study of the Xenophyophores down there - we don't know very much about them and a study of how they are able to survive such immense pressures would be of plausible scientific value. Some of the ones identified as living down there are as big as 10cm across! That's pretty noteworthy.

What physiological reason could there be for one (or two) members of the research team to kill others, but for that same cause not to affect any other member of the team?

Claustrophobia, particularly the Cabin fever/stir crazy form - it's a an oldy-but-a-goody. Wiki describes the symptoms of being "stir crazy" as including "elevated and often increasing levels of anxiety, frustration, agitation, fidgeting, manic depressive type mood swings, and accessory episodes of acting out impulsively or otherwise antisocially on those feelings," combined with the description on the Cabin Fever article of "a distrust of anyone they are with" and that sounds like a recipe for a bit of good old fashioned homicide amongst "friends". Not everyone is affected by these things and if a member of the team were prone to such effects and it were missed during the pre-mission pysch screenings (maybe they even lied a little to get on the mission?) it could easily only affect one or two people sufficiently to cause them to go homicidal.

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  • $\begingroup$ OH!! I dismissed the 2nd paragraph as soon as I read claustrophobia even though as I re read it we virtually have the same thought. Though, I want to point out cabin fever isn't particularly tied to claustrophobia. Claustrophobia can certainly influence cabin fever. Cabin fever has more to do with isolation and a lack of mental outlets. $\endgroup$ – anon Nov 15 '17 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I was just watching "The Shining" earlier today and this answer just reminds me of it so much. $\endgroup$ – Ave Nov 15 '17 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ Also, nitrogen narcosis is a possibility. I don't know whether the asker's habitat is under pressure, but if it is even a small amount of nitrogen in the atmosphere (maybe offgassed by the humans themselves over time) would cause narcotic tendencies. $\endgroup$ – Dubukay Nov 15 '17 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ Your reasons are no explinations but descriptions. There is a big difference. Cabin feaver describes a state of mind when people do irrational things from being confined for long periods of time. It is not an explanation of why the end up that way but the term that describes it. There is a huge difference. Descriptions offer no insight as to why, only terminology to discuss them and understand them better. For example, maybe being in confined spaces and such for long periods of time changes the neurological nature of the brain in such a way that rational thought breaks down. $\endgroup$ – AbstractDissonance Nov 15 '17 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ While it's still descriptive, in a sense, it is better than general term that really means nothing if we want to understand what exactly is going on. E.g., even neurological process is somewhat meaningless because what does that entail? Is it related to synapse activity or a chemical imbalance or what? $\endgroup$ – AbstractDissonance Nov 15 '17 at 23:36
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What would be a reasonable prime purpose of this research mission?

Science. Pick your poison:

  1. Marine Biology
  2. Geology
  3. Deep See Ecology
  4. Habitation

For what reason would a dozen scientists be sent to the bottom of the ocean for a month where a robot/scans would not be appropriate?

For the same reasons why human exploration of space usually trumps robotic exploration.

First of all, the belief or presumption that unmanned robotics are, and will always be, more efficient explorers of [place we wish to explore] is intrinsically flawed. This topic has been covered in academia [1], media [2, 3] with respect to Space, and many of the same reasons apply here. I grant that in many cases, robotic exploration is better; however, there are many reasons why human exploration may or will be preferred. Fundamentally it boils down to the long term goals and the available resources, and the long term ROI. For example, robotics is not always cheaper than human exploration. Here's quick list of broad (and paraphrased) reasons supporting human exploration over robotic exploration:

  1. On-the-spot decision making.
  2. Flexibility. Robots can't be redesigned to observe or respond unexpected phenomena.
  3. Enhanced mobility and attendant opportunities (Something broke? Can't climb that [obstacle]? Remember when Spirit got stuck?).
  4. Increased efficiency in sample collection and sample return capacity.
  5. Increased potential for large-scale exploratory activities.
  6. Increased potential and capacity for deployment and maintenance of complex equipment.
  7. The development of a infrastructure capable of supporting further scientific applications.
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What would be a reasonable prime purpose of this research mission? For what reason would a dozen scientists be sent to the bottom of the ocean for a month where a robot/scans would not be appropriate?

It's not the easiest to do a scientific reason here as by 2067 there shouldn't be too much we can't do through robotics that a human could do easier. That being said, I'd shift the reason from pure science...ya science can be a secondary reason, but the primary reason is more like the reason we stepped on the moon. To prove to the rest of the world we could.

I'd go with PR. This is some nation setting out to prove they can, either to show up a competitor nation or simply bragging rights. "We have the technology to go anywhere, including the Mariana trench". There can be some 'tourism' reasons coming along as well, just as 'space tourism' will come about, proving the technology can allow millionaires to see whatever is in the trench could also be a reason. In the end, it's just about proving we can.

What physiological reason could there be for one (or two) members of the research team to kill others, but for that same cause not to affect any other member of the team?

The fun part of using a PR reason is you've now introduced the 'sabotage' motive...a well hidden spy sabotaging the mission. Someone intentionally planted in the group with the idea of making the entire 'prove we can' fail.

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    $\begingroup$ Standard human BS reasons. +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Nov 15 '17 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. At the current rate of technology, 2067 will have exceptional robots and artificial intelligence to make those robots' capabilities nearly inconceivable. $\endgroup$ – Tracy Cramer Nov 17 '17 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ But we did that 67 years ago. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Nekton $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Nov 17 '17 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn - Heh, missed that....it wasn't a 30 day campout at the bottom, but it definitely was at the deepest point. I guess I'd need to modify this answer...we were also on the moon many years back yet space tourism is still in it's infancy today. We were at the bottom of this trench a long ways back, yet tourism to there is still in it's infancy in 2067? Ugh, into reaching territory $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 17 '17 at 17:00
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You could take inspiration from the game Subnautica. In the game, the player crash lands on an alien planet which is covered with water. While trying to survive, he learns that the aliens that used to live on the planet had been wiped out by a virulent disease. They had been researching various lifeforms on the planet in the hopes of finding one that was resistant to the disease, so that they could extract that resistance and save their species. Most of their research was done thousands of meters underwater, because that's where the most promising creatures lived.

In your situation, the scientists could be researching anything about the local fauna, as long as they need physical samples for their tests - anything from blood work to actual live specimens. Robots and scans might be able to determine general information about the creatures, but they would probably not be able to retrieve these samples without damaging them (after all, removing the samples from their natural high-pressure environment could cause some crucial piece of info being lost somehow), so the only logical conclusion is that research has to be done manually and on-site.

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  • $\begingroup$ The movie "The Abyss" comes to mind, where the research need to happen local to the source for it to happen with any kind of urgency/efficiency. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Nov 15 '17 at 18:00
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We would like to build underwater buildings with internal pressures of 100 atmospheres or more, which reduces the strength needed by the outer hull to keep the water out. A hydrogen-oxygen-helium mixture works, but hydrogen is a narcotic at those pressures. A special narcotics-blocking agent will supposedly allow people to function normally, but must pass Phase II trials to assess its effectiveness and side effects.

The scientists will use an abandoned military facility at the bottom of the Marianas Trench to save on costs, and because it happens to have built-in mechanisms capable of supporting 100 atmospheres of pressure.

Bummer - it turns out that long term side-effects of the drug include paranoid delusions. Bonus: the scientists would like to discontinue its use, but they have found cracks in the facility's hull and must keep the air pressure high to avoid collapse. It's going to be a long month.

https://www.divecompare.com/blog/different-gases-used-for-diving/

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Trying to find a different rational, this is a military experiment to create ultra deep diving submarines and UUV's.

While current submarines are technologically very advanced, they are generally limited as to how deep they can dive. This essentially limits their ability to hide from detection to a limited "slice" of the ocean, perhaps akin to being limited to being able to hide on the skin of an apple.

With various rumoured developments in submarine detection being touted, it seems clear that some advance or combination of advances will eventually make the idea of hiding just under the surface of the water untenable. However, since the ocean is many kilometres deep, being able to operate in the entire 3 dimensional universe of the oceans means the volume which needs to be searched increases immensely, and probably beyond the ability of even the latest technologic to reliable track and locate enemy submarines.

The test, then is to put proposed systems for new generations of military submarines to the test, and the researchers are under contract to the Navy in order to test out this equipment under the sorts of conditions submariners may encounter. To this end, the sea lab is not just a scale model, but the researchers need to test equipment under simulated battle drills (i.e. could the crew work this under stressful conditions), ramping up the pressure to perform, but also to validate the technologies that some of these researchers have developed.

Failure means the end of lucrative research grants and possible contracts with General-Raytheon-Lockheed-Boeing-Colt-Oshkosh Co Ltd., so the stress is enough to push people hard, and inevitably some of them may be pushed the wrong way......

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Politics & International Law

Currently, a nation's Exclusive Economic Zone is defined to extend out 200 nautical miles from a nation's coast. This already leads to all sorts of hijinks--see China's island building/claiming in the Pacific ocean or Russia's settlement on Svalbard in order to legitmize claims. The Russian settlement on Svalbard is particularly apropos: a country propping up a mine and tourism industry with failing revenue in order to legitimize a claim to opening shipping and mining regions within the arctic.

Perhaps in the future, as the viability of undersea settlements becomes feasible, it behooves nations to maintain ocean-floor settlements as the definition was expanded by a UN Charter in 2059 to redefine a nation's exclusive economic zone. Concurrently with advances in deep sea living have come advances in mineral extraction / deep sea delicacies / ocean-floor agriculture. As such, nations must maintain and prove that their ocean floor settlements are continuously inhabited and thus part of the nation---just leaving robots or flags in an area is insufficient to meet the requirements of the new UN charter. After the signing of the new treaty, there was a gold rush of nations rushing to establish "homesteads" on the ocean floor. Even though the pay is reasonable, the concept of living in an ocean-floor settlement for the sole purpose of geopolitical claims appeals to only a certain psychological profile. Perhaps some nations are having a hard time recruiting and resort to commuting prison sentences in exchange for inhabiting such colonies (or even establishing prison colonies on the ocean floor...).

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I'm not curious about what the 12 scientists are doing there, I'm curious about the cat. The "cat" could actually be a prototype of an artificial lifeform designed to survive that intense pressure. Now you've got yourself a plot...

How you design an artificial lifeform to survive that pressure - you're going to have to think hard about the physics of that, because it's likely to be non-trivial.

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    $\begingroup$ Please feel free to change this question into an answer. I'm perfectly ok with the idea that the cat is the reason they're there. Bear in mind the time-line and the science-based tag here. $\endgroup$ – Snow Nov 16 '17 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Snow Rephrased it to make this clearer. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 16 '17 at 12:28
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If you want a reason both why they are down there and why it is not widely known (and perhaps why there are hidden psychological pressures, c.f. HAL's breakdown in 2001), then try this.

Somebody was doing marine biology down there, and hooked something which does not appear to be terrestrial life as we know it. Just a nearly mindless worm, but its biochemistry is really interesting. Different amino acids, or different DNA encoding, or something like that.

Evidence of visiting aliens?! Or just something left over from before LUCA, separated from surface life by a need for extreme pressure? Anyway, the powers that be really do not want the public getting to know about this, before they understand it and its implications.

Choose harmless two-point-five-billion-year old living fossil, if you just want an excuse.

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Of course no humans would be sent, but a robot. Because, as you state correctly, a robot can work much better in that environment.

The first robot they sent didn't come back.

The second robot they sent to search for the first floated to the surface a week later. It was not damaged, and had been switched off.

This is a first contact mission.

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What would be a reasonable prime purpose of this research mission? For what reason would a dozen scientists be sent to the bottom of the ocean for a month where a robot/scans would not be appropriate?

There is none, robots are more effective at scientific data collection down there than humans so there is no value at sending humans.

The premise of this plot is flawed conceptually. 30 days is way to short to acclimate to the pressure differences. Deep sea divers on oil rigs spend months in pressure chambers before and after their operational stint. It is also extremely risky where an accident can result in fatality or long term injury. Sending scientists is infeasible when scientists are better used analyzing data instead of doing dangerous hands on work.

What would more likely be the case is you have a dozen technicians sent down there to maintain equipment and do detail work machines cant yet do. However, at these pressures the human body cannot be acclimated to survive without an external vehicle (like a futuristic mech dive suit).

What physiological reason could there be for one (or two) members of the research team to kill others, but for that same cause not to affect any other member of the team?

In these situations the common conditional occurrence is called "Cabin Fever". Essentially when a human trapped in a confined space with limited social exposure for long periods, certain predisposed minds can snap in violent and/or psychotic ways. This rarely happens in deep sea or space missions anymore as candidates usually undergo psych evaluations to prevent exactly this scenario.

So you would have to go with the cop out solution which is Person A suddenly decides he hates everyone because they small funny (or whatever) and does something about it.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Deep sea divers on oil rigs spend months in pressure chambers" - do you have a citation for that? That doesn't sound right to me. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Nov 15 '17 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ Time to adapt to the pressure is not relevant here. The Marianas Trench is over 10km deep, with a pressure of over 1000 ATM. Humans cannot survive with this much pressure, and at these levels it makes sense just to keep the interior at 1 ATM. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 15 '17 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham good point, though they'd probably go for 10 ATM or something to make it a little bit easier for the structure to resist the external pressure. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Nov 17 '17 at 3:58
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts The difference between 1000 ATM and 990 ATM is 1%. For stresses in your structure, that tiny difference is basically lost in the shuffle when it comes to safety margins. It makes a massive difference for humans though. I can't see them taking a hit on the crew needing to go through days of pressure chambers beforehand, and all the extra complications with this, when there's no real win structurally. No submarine does this, after all, and the pressure difference at regular submarine depths would be more noticeable. $\endgroup$ – Graham Nov 17 '17 at 11:52
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The scientists are in an underwater prison. They have all committed crimes that would normally have sent them to a maximum security prison, but instead, they had the option of spending 6 months of every year in a facility from which there is really no escape.

The scientists may be studying deep-sea oil extraction, or new organisms that were found, or even the effects of extreme claustrophobia on extremely intelligent people.

It could even be something totally unrelated to the ocean, like figuring out how to weaponize some particular toxins or diseases. If the experiments go wrong, the lab is already sealed off as far as possible, at least according to the government official who authorized this secret base. All the staff are expendable prisoners, so there is no down side. Until you contaminate the entire ocean.

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Could be an effort to battle terror from the deep.

In short: Aliens have come to earth, and they are hiding out building bases on the ocean beds, sometimes striking out attacking human cities, abducting people et.c. We simply have to hunt them down in the deep to protect ourselves (or we die later anyway when they attack us on land).

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