China’s Ocean Drilling Ship Mengxiang to be First to Reach Earth’s Mantle

China has unveiled its first ocean drilling vessel, the Mengxiang, designed to go through the Earth’s crust and reach the upper mantle. This state of the art ship, whose name translates to dream in Chinese.

Mengxiang to be First to Reach Earth’s Mantle

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Crafted through collaboration between the China Geological Survey, over 150 research institutes, and various companies, the Mengxiang is on a mission that could redefine our understanding of Earth’s structure and geological processes.

Measuring a 179 meters in length and 32.8 meters in width, the Mengxiang is a colossal vessel with a cargo capacity of 33,000 tonnes.

Engineered to withstand the strongest tropical cyclones, this ship can navigate global waters, covering 15,000 nautical miles and operating for 120 days per port call.

What sets the Mengxiang apart is its drilling prowess, capable of reaching a depth of 11,000 meters below the sea’s surface.

Human activities and scientific exploration have been limited to the Earth’s crust, with an average thickness of 15,000 meters.

However, beneath the crust lies the mantle, a layer connecting the surface to the core. The Mengxiang to breach the Mohorovicic discontinuity, known as the Moho, located about 7,000 meters beneath the ocean floor, access to the uncharted territories of the upper mantle.

Historical attempts by American scientists since the 1960s to breach the Moho and reach the mantle have faced challenges.

The Moho remaining a barrier, advancements in deep ocean drilling technology have provided valuable insights into the Earth’s structure.

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Rock samples from ultra deep boreholes have proven for understanding plate tectonics, oceanic crust evolution, ancient ocean climates, and seabed resources.

Marine geologist Li Chun-feng from Zhejiang University suggests that life could exist within the mantle, pointing to the growing number of discoveries of organisms capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and pressures.

The mantle’s composition, particularly peridotite, could produce energy for life forms, opening up a field of exploration.

While the prospect of discovering new forms of life within the mantle is exciting, some scientists express skepticism.

A marine biology expert, choosing to remain anonymous, show that the deep biosphere in seabed rocks, Earth’s largest microbial reservoir, has so far revealed dormant microbes with slow metabolism.

The Mengxiang underwent trials, primarily focusing on testing its propulsion system powered by a new-generation 30-megawatt power station.

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However, details about the core drilling system remain limited. Drilling to a depth of 11,000 meters poses challenges, including high temperature and pressure at the seabed.

Advanced drilling techniques, high-quality drill bits, and circulation systems are deemed necessary, requiring time, money, and facing failure risks.

Li Chun-feng expresses confidence in the Mengxiang, stating that its capabilities far exceed those of its counterparts, including the American research vessel JOIDES Resolution and Japan’s Chikyu scientific drilling ship.

The Mengxiang, being 20 years younger than the Chikyu, has a more advanced drilling system to achieve the objective of drilling through the Moho.

The Mengxiang’s recent trial primarily focused on testing its propulsion system, powered by a new-generation 30-megawatt power station.

However, details about the core drilling system remain limited. The task of reaching 11,000 meters below the water’s surface challenges, including high temperature and pressure at the seabed, requiring advanced drilling techniques and high demands on drill bits and circulation systems.

The Mengxiang’s role in the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition is for China to enhance its influence in marine sciences.

Li contrasts the Mengxiang with Japan’s Chikyu, that while the Chikyu has tonnage, its activities have been limited to the vicinity of Japan.

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