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SPIE Newsroom article details 'Titanic' explorations enabled by advances in optics for underwater imaging

17 April 2012

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- Resting two miles below the surface, the RMS Titanic is the world's most famous shipwreck. With the observation of the 100th anniversary of its sinking, there is a renewed interest in every aspect of the disaster.

Fascination with the fate of the luxury liner and its passengers has been heightened by advances in underwater imaging techniques and instrumentation since the discovery of the wreckage in 1985 by explorer Robert Ballard and his team. In fact, if not for the optical techniques used in the initial discovery, Titanic might still be lost.

In a new article posted last week on SPIE Newsroom, three scientists who worked with Ballard on multiple explorations talk about the innovations that have led to unprecedented detail in the images now available from under the ocean.

Advances in the technology continue, with new applications available to researchers. The upcoming SPIE Defense, Security + Sensing symposium includes a conference on Ocean Sensing and Monitoring where technology updates will be reported. The conference will run 24 - 26 April at the Baltimore Convention Center.

On the 1985 mission, Ballard's group from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution used a live TV feed to the surface - a huge advance from previous efforts, which involved towing sleds with strobe lights and film cameras, and then a long wait while the film was processed.

Seeing things underwater is like driving in a fog bank; turn on your brights and all you see is fog. "The genius of Ballard is that he knew how to use light to take pictures in the deepest ocean," says Jules Jaffe, head of the Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 1985 he was an assistant scientist at Woods Hole, working on refining imaging systems.

Bill Lange, head of the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at Woods Hole, says that since 1985, "we improved the lighting technology, the telemetry systems, the optics. From there we went on to 3D, and 3D HD, and even ultra-high-definition imaging systems."

Oceanographer Dwight Coleman, veteran of 20 expeditions with Ballard, works on designing camera systems to overcome challenging imaging conditions and tremendous pressure. "We use titanium housings with special glass lenses and seals to withstand it," he says.

The complete open-access article, "Titanic: The optics of undersea discovery," is available on the SPIE Newsroom website at http://spie.org/Titanic.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 225,000 constituents from approximately 150 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional growth, and patent precedent. SPIE provided over $2.5 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2011.

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