China’s ocean drilling ship Mengxiang sets sail to unlock Earth’s mantle secrets

The Mengxiang is a collaborative effort of China Geological Survey, research institutes, and companies. (Image: @chinaorgcn/X)

China has unveiled its first-ever ocean drilling vessel, the Mengxiang, designed to delve into the Earth’s crust and explore the mysteries of the mantle. The vessel, aptly named “dream” in Chinese, represents a significant stride in deep-sea drilling capabilities, aiming to breach the Mohorovicic discontinuity and reach where humanity has never ventured before.

The Mengxiang, a colossal ship crafted through collaborative efforts involving the China Geological Survey, over 150 research institutes, and various companies, stands poised to undertake an unparalleled mission—penetrating the Earth’s crust to unveil the secrets concealed within the mantle.

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This endeavour, if successful, promises to revolutionize Earth science research, providing unprecedented insights into our planet’s hidden realms.

Measuring an impressive 179 meters in length and 32.8 meters in width, the Mengxiang boasts a staggering cargo capacity of 33,000 tonnes. Engineered to withstand the fiercest tropical cyclones, this vessel can navigate global waters, traveling up to 15,000 nautical miles and operating for 120 days per port call.

With drilling prowess reaching a depth of 11,000 meters below the sea’s surface, the Mengxiang eclipses its predecessors in the pursuit of scientific discovery.

For decades, humanity’s attempts to breach the Moho and reach the mantle have been met with formidable challenges. The Mengxiang, however, emerges as a beacon of hope, with experts highlighting its advanced capabilities over renowned counterparts like the JOIDES Resolution and Japan’s Chikyu scientific drilling ship.

Despite skepticism from some scientists, the Mengxiang’s potential to unlock the Earth’s deep biosphere and reveal geological secrets remains a tantalizing prospect.

Marine geologist Li Chun-feng from Zhejiang University emphasizes the significance of rock samples from ultra-deep boreholes, shedding light on plate tectonics, oceanic crust evolution, and ancient ocean climates.

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“Rock samples from ultra-deep boreholes have become crucial for understanding plate tectonics, oceanic crust evolution, ancient ocean climates and seabed resources,” Li Chun-feng told South China Morning Post.

While the Mengxiang recently underwent trials primarily testing its propulsion system, the core drilling details remain shrouded in mystery. Experts like Wan Buyan from Hunan University of Science and Technology highlight the formidable obstacles of drilling below 7,000 meters, citing high temperature and pressure challenges.

Despite the risks and uncertainties, Li expresses confidence in the Mengxiang, projecting it as a vessel surpassing its counterparts.

Li also said it was highly possible life could exist within the mantle, citing a growing number of discoveries of organisms that can withstand extreme temperatures and pressures.

Li, who participated in the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition, calls for collaboration with global scientists to address cutting-edge scientific issues. He emphasizes the need for China, with the Mengxiang as its flagship, to take a leading role in international projects.

Strategic planning involving government departments, the scientific community, and input from industry experts is deemed essential to elevate China’s influence in marine sciences.