CNN — It could be an alien spacecraft or a 21st century version of Captain Nemo's Nautilus from Jules Verne "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," but in fact it's a live-aboard, ocean-going laboratory that could be exploring the seas as soon as late next year.
Called the SeaOrbiter, the part submarine, part research vessel is the concept of French architect Jacques Rougerie. Currently the centerpiece of France's pavilion at Expo 2012 in Yeosu, South Korea, it has spent almost 12 years floating around as a mere concept. It recently completed its industrial design phase and construction is slated for October this year.
"All technical issues are resolved, all the modeling is done," says Ariel Fuchs, education and media director of the SeaOrbiter project. "We gathered institutional and industrial support five or six years ago and it's been a real institutional and financial project for the last two years."
It is expected to cost around $43 million and when built, will be 58-meters in height, taller than Nelson's Column, a monument in London. When launched, around 50% of the vessel will be below the water line, allowing for constant underwater study, Fuchs says.
"One of the first users will be the science community," he says. "It's designed to explore the ocean in a new way, mainly spending time under the sea, giving people the opportunity to live under the sea for a very long time, to observe, to undertake research missions, like marine biology, oceanography and climate issues."
Rougerie's inspiration for SeaOrbiter comes from ocean explorers like Jacques Cousteau and the experimental Tektite underwater capsule laboratory that was used by oceanographer Sylvia Earle in 1969.
Earle is one of many vocal supporters of the SeaOrbiter project; others include former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and astronaut Jean-Loup Chretien. The space connection doesn't stop there as SeaOrbiter has enlisted the support of the European Space Agency and other industrial organizations to help develop the technology needed for the ambitious project and its onboard systems.
Designed to drift with ocean currents, the vessel will generate the majority of its power for life-support systems and propulsion to avoid other ships and storms from renewable energy, including solar, wind and wave power, Fuchs says. A side project is underway in conjunction with EADS, the European defense and space systems conglomerate, to develop a biofuel as the ship's main power source.
"It meets the requirements of today's philosophy of sustainability," Fuchs says.
When built, the ship is expected to go to Monaco -- the same place where Jacques Cousteau began his missions.
"The larger education plan is explaining how important the oceans are in to the balance of the planet," says Fuchs.