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X Prize launches $7 million competition to explore the ocean’s depths

The X Prize Foundation just launched another global competition, aimed at exploring and mapping the depths of the ocean floor. The $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery X Prize challenges teams of entrepreneurs to create new, low-cost technologies that can conduct high-resolution mapping, identify various deep-sea features and objects, and track chemical and biological signatures up to 2.5 miles below the ocean's surface. In a video announcing the competition, X Prize argues that such technology could help us learn more about our history, as well as potentially identify cures to deadly human diseases at the bottom of the sea.

"[The ocean] covers two-thirds of our planet, yet since the dawn of time, we've only explored 5 percent of it," says the narrator of the X Prize video. Intense pressures and extreme darkness make it incredibly difficult to map the deep ocean. Currently, ocean mappers mostly rely on sound to "see" the bottom. Echo sounding sonar technology helps to create a pictures of the ocean floor by analyzing how sound waves bounce off the bottom and travel back.

Intense pressures and extreme darkness make it difficult to map the deep ocean

Now, X Prize wants technologies that can produce better deep-sea maps than sonar will allow. The teams that participate in the X Prize competition must be able to launch their ocean-exploration technologies from either the air or the shore, and prove that their robotics work at a depth of 1.24 miles below the ocean, as well as 2.5 miles. At the lowest depth, there's no sunlight and temperatures are just below freezing, making it difficult for technologies to survive and function properly.

The team that can overcome this and receive the top score — or the one that meets and exceeds all the competition's requirements — will receive $4 million, and the team with the second highest score will receive $1 million. A bonus $1 million, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be awarded to the team that can successfully sniff out the source of an established biological or chemical signal underwater. The rest of the prize money will be split among the top 10 teams that reach the first round.

This is just one of many X Prize competitions aimed at cultivating the creation of new technologies that help to address a need for society. Recently, it announced a competition to come up with technologies that can take carbon emissions and turn them into something profitable and useful. The organization also sponsors a competition to create a Star Trek "tricorder," as well as a contest to create a lunar lander and send it to the Moon.