The distances to the stars are so vast, that unless faster than light travel is discovered, human missions across the galaxy will be represented by starships carrying hundreds to thousands of people, on a voyage into the unknown, with a wide number of discoveries laying before them. What will they find? Who, will they meet? Humans have been an explorer species for centuries, and few adventures epitomise this so well than the voyage of HMS Challenger in 1872 sailing out from Portsmouth in England on a trip that was of immense importance and would continue until 1876.[1]

It was sponsored by the British government and organized by the Royal Society in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. Its mission was to chart the depths of the ocean (given little was known at the time) and the movement of the continents of the seas, to look for marine life, minerals and any clues to climactic phenomena. Its discoveries were of huge importance to oceanography. The specific scientific objectives were determined by the Royal Society as:

  • To investigate the physical conditions of the deep sea in the great ocean basins (as far as the neighbourhood of the Great Southern Ice Barrier) in regard to depth, temperature, circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.

  • To determine the chemical composition of seawater at various depths from the surface to the bottom, the organic matter in solution and the particles in suspension.

  • To ascertain the physical and chemical character of deep-sea deposits and the sources of these deposits.

  • To investigate the distribution of organic life at different depths and on the deep seafloor.

    The vessel was a three-masted corvette with auxiliary steam. It was a Royal Navy vessel, but was modified for the scientific expedition. This included removing 16 of Challenger’s 18 guns and her spares to make space for the scientific equipment. The mission was so unique that some of the instruments used for the mission were invented specifically for the expedition, demonstrating that pushing the boundaries of exploration, also leads to new technologies. The Captain of the vessel was George Nares and he was accompanied by Commander John Maclear. The ship was 200 feet long, 40 feet wide and with three masts and supplementary steam power, 2,306 tons displacement with a wooden hull and compound engine, 1,200 horse power, with 1 screw. She was originally built at the Woolwich Dockyard in England, February 13, 1858. The ship carried a crew compliment of over two hundred, with 21 officers. The crew had dropped to under 150 by the end of the expedition due to deaths and desertions and general departures planned from the outset. The scientific team was led by Professor Wyville Thomson and he was accompanied by the naturalists Henry Moseley and John Murray. The team went on to catalogue over 4,000 previously unknown species. The work of the scientific team led to a report titled “Report of the Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S Challenger during the years 1873-1876″.[2]

    The voyage was a journey that would circumnavigate the world, covering over 68,000 nautical miles and lasting for thousands of day’s duration. The voyage started at Portsmouth and went on to Lisbon and Gibraltar and then the Canary Islands and Virgin Islands. This was before crossing the Atlantic to Bermuda and back again to the Azores, Maderia and many other places. Some of the other destinations the ship visited includes: Cape Verde Islands, Halifax, St Paul’s Rocks, Fernando de Noronha, Bahia, Cap of Good Hope, Tristan da Cunha, Prince Edward Islands, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Heard Island, Antarctic Circle, Melbourne, Wilsons Promontory, Cape Howe, Sydney, Wellington, Tonga, Fiji, Cape York, New Zealand, Wellington, Port Hardy, Queen Charlotte Sound, Cook Strait, Wellington, Kermadec Islands, Tongatabu, Jijian islands, Raine Island, Cape York Peninsula, Arafura Sea, New Guinea, Aru Islands, Kai Islands, Banda Islands, Ambon Island, Ternate Island, Celebes Sea, Samboangan, IIoilo, Island of Luzon, Hong Kong, New Guinea, Manila. The route that the ship took is shown in the map below.

    At the end of the Challenger Expedition, the ship was returned to the Royal Naval and was used by the Coast Guard and later as a drill ship for the Naval Reserves. It was decommissioned in 1878 and then became a floating warehouse in 1883 in the River Medway. She was finally demolished for scrap in 1921. The only part of the ship that remains is her figurehead, now kept at the Southampton Oceanography Centre.

    When we reflect on the voyage of Challenger, we marvel at what she accomplished. So honoured was her trip that one of the US Space Shuttles was named after her. What expeditions will humans mount in the coming centuries? Not on the oceans of Earth but towards those sea of Suns. We can only speculate on what they may discover. Perhaps centuries from now, there will be another ship called Challenger, with scientists aboard, searching for new discoveries. In many ways this ship will be similar to the original Challenger expedition, but in a very marked way it will be different. This is because it will be a Starhip, looking for minerals on other planets and searching for marine life on the worlds of other stars. The name ‘Challenger’ reminds us as human beings that we need to continue to challenge ourselves to the next frontier, if we are to continue evolving as a species towards a more positive future for ourselves. We do this by placing hope and optimism firmly in our future and believing in the unlimited potential of each other.

[1] E. Linklater, The Voyager of the Challenger, Cardinal, 1972.

[2] Report Of the Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S Challenger during the years 1873-1876