This may be about to change with a $1 billion mission to drill 6 km (3.7 miles) beneath the seafloor to reach the Earth’s mantle — a 3000 km-thick layer of slowly deforming rock between the crust and the core which makes up the majority of our planet — and bring back the first ever fresh samples.
It could help answer some of our biggest questions about the origins and evolution of Earth itself, with almost all of the sea floor and continents that make up the Earth´s surface originating from the mantle.
Geologists involved in the project are already comparing it to the Apollo Moon missions in terms of the value of the samples it could yield.
However, in order to reach those samples, the team of international scientists must first find a way to grind their way through ultra-hard rocks with 10 km-long (6.2 miles) drill pipes — a technical challenge that one of the project co-leaders Damon Teagle, from the UK’s University of Southampton calls, “the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science.”
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Their task will be all the more difficult for being conducted out in the middle of the ocean. It is here that the Earth´s crust is at its thinnest at around 6 km compared to as much as 60 km (37.3 miles) on land.
They have already identified three possible locations — all in the Pacific Ocean — where the ocean floor was formed at relatively fast spreading mid-ocean ridges, says Teagle.
The hole they will drill will be just 30 cm in width all the way from the ocean floor to inside the mantle — a monumental engineering feat.
“It will be the equivalent of dangling a steel string the width of a human hair in the deep end of a swimming pool and inserting it into a thimble 1/10 mm wide on the bottom, and then drilling a few meters into the foundations,” says Teagle.
To get to the mantle scientists will be relying on a purpose-built Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel called Chikyu, first launched in 2002 and capable of carrying 10 km of drilling pipes. It has already set a world-record for the deepest hole in scientific ocean drilling history, reaching 2.2 km into the seafloor.
What makes the task even more difficult is that, currently, the drill bits have a limited lifespan of between 50-60 hours before needing to be replaced, meaning drilling could take many years unless technology improves.
The first attempts to reach the Earth’s mantle actually began back in the early 1960s.