Last April, students and scientists from Rutgers University launched a small underwater robotic glider off the coast of New Jersey. On Dec. 9, Baiona, Spain, will welcome the glider at the end of its historic ocean crossing.

This journey has been part of a noteworthy collaboration between the U.S. interagency Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), Rutgers University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Puertos Del Estado (Spanish Port Authority), the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, and others.   

The glider, nicknamed The Scarlet Knight, launched off the coast of New Jersey last spring. At just 7 feet long and 135 pounds, the device crossed the ocean in 221 days. A similar attempt was made last year, but that glider was lost around the Azores. 

All the while, the public was encouraged to follow the course of the Scarlet Knight on the Internet. As the scientists at Rutgers said, “Our task is to help the public understand the true nature of science, and the best way to do that is to let them follow on a voyage of adventure.”

The Scarlet Knight repeatedly dove to depths of up to 200 meters to collect data including temperature, salinity and density. This data was correlated with information from satellite imagery and altimetry, radar systems and seafloor and buoy-mounted sensors to give a more detailed view of a particular patch of ocean in near real time. 

Because the glider was in constant motion, it offered a more comprehensive view of ocean conditions in time and space than the static measurements usually taken from the deck of a ship.

Richard Spinrad is NOAA’s assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research. “The success of this mission marks an important milestone in ocean observing and opens new frontiers in oceanography … It is through efforts like this that we will continue to learn more about the wonders of the ocean at a critical time for our planet.” 

The data provided by the glider is part of a larger picture of the interactions between the ocean and atmosphere. Scientists hope this will advance our understanding of potential climate change impacts on marine ecosystems and coastal communities.

Here’s how it works: The glider moves with the fluidity of the ocean among currents that constantly move and shift. These currents can strongly affect the glider’s flight. If the glider moves into an area where the current flows against the intended direction, the glider will lose ground. But if the glider finds itself in an area of the ocean moving in the same direction, it will gain speed. Luckily, the Scarlet Knight moved with the Gulf Stream that regularly flows eastward towards Europe. 

A ceremony on Dec. 9 will celebrate the glider arrival in Baiona. Incidentally, this is the place where, in 1493, Christopher Columbus first announced the existence of the New World.

First-ever unmanned underwater glider crosses the Atlantic
Experiment opens new frontiers in oceanography and ocean observation.