A team of Navy submarine experts is preparing to assess the damaged USS San Francisco to determine whether the Guam-based warship can be repaired and return to sea.

The attack submarine entered dry dock Wednesday at the Guam Shipyard, U.S. Naval Base Guam officials announced in a news release.

The Navy certified the dry dock “Big Blue” for the one-time docking of the USS San Francisco so officials can assess the damage the submarine sustained when it ran aground Jan. 8.

The dock is capable of housing ships that weigh up to 40,000 long tons.

“It’s an all-day evolution. It started about 3 a.m. and will be completed tonight,” Naval Base Guam spokeswoman Lt. Arwen Consaul said Wednesday.

During the dry docking, the submarine is secured to wood blocks while water slowly is drained. Divers ensure the ship is secure, Consaul said.

A Navy team, led by Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Naval Sea Systems Command, is planning to conduct a full engineering assessment on the San Francisco.

“Until they put in dry dock, they can’t get a full visual on the actual damage on the front of the submarine,” Consaul said.

The group will determine whether the ship can be repaired and whether it’s seaworthy for transport to a shipyard for those repairs, she said.

The San Francisco, a Los Angeles-class, fast-attack submarine, is believed to have struck an uncharted underwater rock mass about 350 nautical miles south of Guam while on its way to Australia, according to news reports. Twenty-three sailors were reported injured in the incident, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Allen Ashley, a machinist’s mate from Akron, Ohio, was killed.

Cmdr. Kevin Mooney, who commanded the USS San Francisco, was reassigned to Submarine Squadron 15 on Guam pending completion of the investigation into the crash. Cmdr. Andrew Hale, deputy commander of Submarine Squadron 15, has assumed command of the San Francisco.

For Guam’s two other nuclear-powered submarines, it’s business as usual, Consaul said. “The City of Corpus Christi just came out of a maintenance period and the Houston did all of its maintenance prior to coming out to Guam,” she said. “Both of them are at Polaris Point and supporting the San Francisco however they can.”

The San Francisco has 19 officers and 126 enlisted sailors on board. The crew will continue to work on the submarine during its dry dock period, Consaul said.

Uncharted sea mountain seen in 2004 images

Satellite images of the area where a nuclear submarine grounded three weeks ago clearly show a wedge-shaped undersea mountain that stretches across more than a mile of a desolate expanse of the South Pacific, the New York Times reported in its Sunday editions.

Military officials have said the mountain, which rises within 100 feet of the surface, was not on the navigation charts that the Navy uses. One sailor was killed and 23 were injured when the submarine, the USS San Francisco, rammed the mountain at high speed on Jan. 8.

The satellite images, taken in 1999 and early 2004, suggest that the mountain is part of a larger range of undersea volcanoes and reefs, the Times reported.

Besides relying on charts, submarines also receive fixes from navigation satellites and take soundings of water depths. Officials told the Times that the San Francisco’s officers have said they took a sounding just four minutes before the crash, and it indicated that the vessel was still in 6,000 feet of water.

It is possible that the San Francisco could have detected the undersea mountain if it had used its active sonar system. But since early in the Cold War, submarines have avoided using active sonar, which emits loud pings that can give away their location. Even on training missions, they practice operating silently and rely on passive sonar systems that can detect only ships and other objects making noise.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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