March 18, 2022

The missions of H.M.S. Challenger and JOIDES Resolution – a comparison of ocean exploration then and now

Posted by Laura Guertin

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the departure of the first ocean research expedition. On December 21, 1872, H.M.S. Challenger departed Portsmouth, England and returned three-and-half years later May 24, 1876.** Fast-forward to April 12th, when I am departing on JOIDES Resolution from Cape Town, South Africa for a two-month expedition that will return to Cape Town. I thought it would be interesting with Challenger’s anniversary to take a moment and reflect upon the mission of each research vessel to see how their missions are different between the two ships and over time.


H.M.S. Challenger

Sketch of HMS Challenger, H.M.S. 'Challenger' Preparing to Sound, 1872

H.M.S. ‘Challenger’ Preparing to Sound, 1872
From Reports of the ‘Challenger’ Expedition. Image in public domain from Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

Launched in 1858, H.M.S. Challenger was a small warship with cannons assigned to coastal patrols and to support larger ships in the British naval fleet – it was not built for a science expedition. Modifications to Challenger were funded by the British government through the navy to include laboratories and accommodations for six civilian scientists to join the 250 British Royal Navy sailors and officers for the 3+ year journey at sea. Although there were several ships that went out on scientific expeditions prior to 1872, the Challenger expedition is the one credited as giving rise to the field of oceanography – and it’s interesting that before 1872, the term “oceanography” didn’t even exist in any dictionaries (see GeoEd Trek blog post).

The Royal Society appointed a Circumnavigation Committee , charging these scientists with the task to set out Challenger’s course and activities. The Committee defined the details for “why” and “how” Challenger should determine the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the global ocean, emphasizing the deep sea (report available online). H.M.S. Challenger’s mission was all about collecting samples, whether those samples be seafloor mud, manganese modules, corals, crabs, and plant and animal life from the islands they visited over their three-year journey. The scientists focused on gathering as many samples as possible, then examining, describing, and cataloging what they found.

The six scientists on board Challenger were not concerned about aquatic systems or human/environment interactions – this really was a journey of discovery and documenting what exists in these unexplored areas. This is the way natural science was carried out at this time in history. Upon conclusion of the expedition, it took 50 volumes of the Challenger Report to share what was seen and collected – including roughly 4,700 new plant and animal species! (learn more about how Challenger scientists and crew disseminated their work and stories of their lives at sea at the GeoEd Trek blog post The science communications from H.M.S. Challenger were “Good Words” and more.)


JOIDES Resolution

Some people think that the Challenger expedition “simply built on and extended the work of its predecessors and prepared the way for those that followed” (Macdougall, 2019, p. 230). One of those new ships that followed focused on scientific ocean drilling and is still coring ocean sediments and drilling through ocean basement rock today – the JOIDES Resolution.

The mission of JOIDES Resolution is “to sail for scientific exploration,” for “discoveries [that] lie deep beneath the oceans” (ODP/IODP ship history). Measurements on and below the ocean floor help scientists answer questions relating to plate tectonics, geochemistry, paleoclimate, paleomagnetism, the rock cycle, and so much more. These were disciplines and topics no one even would have thought to investigate back in the day of H.M.S. Challenger, but time and technology now allows us to not just sample deeper but to ask deeper questions.

JOIDES Resolution is managed and operated by JRSO for the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and National Science Foundation. This short video below is an introduction to the international research collaboration during expeditions to study the history of the Earth recorded in sediments and rocks beneath the ocean floor.

There is so much more to scientific ocean drilling and where it is going in the future. Check out Exploring Earth by Scientific Ocean Drilling: 2050 Science Framework to learn about the important research frontiers that scientific ocean drilling seeks to pursue. The framework focuses on how scientific ocean drilling will increase our understanding of Earth systems and the natural and human-caused environmental challenges facing society. (more about “why” scientific ocean drilling in a future blog post)


Despite the differing missions for these two vessels, they both have a strong connection to each other. Both have advanced our knowledge of ocean science. Both have had scientists aboard dedicated to bringing the ship discoveries to broader audiences through letters, magazine articles, blog posts, and multimedia. And if we play the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game, we can make a connection between their names (sort of – go along with me for this one…)

I could not find information on why the British Royal Navy chose “Challenger” as the name of their ship – but this name did serve as the inspiration for the NASA space shuttle, the lunar module on the Apollo 17 mission, the scientific ocean drilling vessel Glomar Challenger, and even Sir Author Conan Doyle is said to have named his recurring character Professor Challenger after this ship.

Note that Glomar Challenger was the deep sea scientific and research drilling vessel for the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) from August 11, 1968, to November 11, 1983. The ship that replaced Glomar Challenger? It was JOIDES Resolution, that began sailing in 1985 for the renamed DSDP effort – Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). ODP was renamed to IODP in 2003 as the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, then in 2013 as the International Ocean Discovery Program.

So we have H.M.S. Challenger to Glomar Challenger, which was a part of DSDP, which became ODP, which started with the new vessel JOIDES Resolution – I got there in less than six degrees! Now how to tie this back to Kevin Bacon…

Stay tuned for more blog posts that pay tribute to H.M.S. Challenger and JOIDES Resolution across the next several months!



**(Note there are several sources with a conflicting sailing dates – some reporting that December 7th was the actual day Challenger left port and May 26th as the return)