During Cold War, humans drilled deeper than ever before (shafts to hell)


EXCERPT: . . . This is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the deepest manmade hole on Earth and deepest artificial point on Earth. The 40,230ft-deep (12.2km) construction is so deep that locals swear you can hear the screams of souls tortured in hell. It took the Soviets almost 20 years to drill this far, but the drill bit was still only about one-third of the way through the crust to the Earth’s mantle when the project came grinding to a halt in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia. The Soviets’ superdeep borehole isn’t alone. During the Cold War, there was a race by the superpowers to drill as deep as possible into the Earth’s crust – and even to reach the mantle of the planet itself.

Now the Japanese want to have a go. [...] “The ultimate goal of the new project is to get actual living samples of the mantle as it exists right now,” says Sean Toczko, programme manager for the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science. “In places like Oman you can find mantle close to the surface, but that’s mantle as it was millions of years ago. “It’s the difference between having a live dinosaur and a fossilised dinosaur bone.”

If the Earth is like an onion, then the crust is like the thin skin of the planet. It is only 25 (40km) miles thick. Beyond this, is the 1,800-mile deep mantle and beyond that, right at the center of the Earth, is the core. Like the space race, the race to the explore this unknown “deep frontier” was a demonstration of engineering prowess, cutting-edge technology and the “right stuff”. The scientists were going where no human had gone before. The rock samples these super-deep boreholes could supply were potentially as important for science as anything Nasa brought back from the moon. The only difference was that this time the Americans didn’t win the race. In fact, no-one really did.

The US had fired up the first drill in the race to explore the deep frontier. In the late 1950s, the wonderfully named American Miscellaneous Society came up with the first serious plan to drill down to the mantle. [...] Rather than drill a very, very deep hole, the US expedition – observed by novelist John Steinbeck – decided to take a short cut through the Pacific Ocean floor off Guadalupe, Mexico. The advantage of drilling through the ocean floor is that the Earth’s crust is thinner there; the disadvantage is that the thinnest areas of crust is usually where the ocean is at its deepest. ... Two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, US Congress cancelled the funding for Project Mohole when costs began to spiral out of control.

[...] in 1990, the German Continental Deep Drilling Program (KTB) began in Bavaria – and eventually drilled down to 5.6 miles (9km). [...] When Dutch artist Lotte Geevan lowered her microphone protected by a thermal shield down the German borehole, it picked up a deep rumbling sound that scientists couldn’t explain, a rumbling that made her “feel very small; it was the first time in my life this big ball we live on came to life, and it sounds haunting,” she says. “Some people thought it did sound like hell. Others thought they could hear the planet breathe.”

[...drilling on...] the Kola Superdeep Borehole ... stopped in 1992, when the temperature reached 180C (356F). This was twice what was expected at that depth and drilling deeper was no longer possible. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no money to fund such projects – and three years later the whole facility was closed down...

[...] “The thing about these missions is that they are like planetary exploration,” says Damon Teagle, professor of geochemistry in the School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton, who has been heavily involved in the new Japanese-led project. “They are pure science undertakings and you never know quite know what you are going to find." (MORE - including historical details)

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