Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NOAA's Aquarius: an undersea home for scientists, divers and even astronauts

Where would you like to spend a faraway vacation? A remote chateau in France? A cozy cabin in the high Sierras? Well, here's one that is on my wish list: over 60 feet below the surface of the waves, off the coast of Florida, nestled in the Aquarius undersea research station.

Currently, the only permanent undersea habitat and research facility, Aquarius is owned and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It has been home to a wide array of scientists and researchers since it was first deployed in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary in 1993.

One of the advantages of an undersea habitat is the ability to extend the amount of bottom time (time spent diving and conducting research outside). If you were to dive from the surface to 60 feet, you would have only about one hour of dive time before you would find yourself having to deal with decompression (waiting to discharge accumulated nitrogen) as you surfaced. However, by
staying below in a pressurized facility, a scientist could spend a full working day outside, for up to 10 days or more. At the conclusion of the mission there would then be an extended period of time spent decompressing before stepping on dry land, but the ability to spend days at a time underwater is extremely valuable for many types of scientific ocean studies.

Additionally, a facility like Aquarius is ideal for testing how men and women can function in confined environments like they would encounter in deep space missions. NASA just concluded its latest deep space training exercise, NEEMO 15, which stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation. With NASA's future deep space missions, like ones being considered to the moons of Mars, Mars itself, and even to an asteroid (calling Bruce Willis), it is important to know how astronauts can function effectively and independently, with little or no contact with mother Earth. Medical emergencies, software and hardware repairs, and of course, long-term isolation - all need to be considered and studied.

From reef growth to acidification to developing new techniques in biodiversity studies - or even preparing astronauts for future space missions - Aquarius is a vitally important ocean research center. NOAA understands the value of public awareness and has established and interesting website for Aquarius, containing background information on missions and other accomplishments, videos, pictures, and even a live feed camera for when it's catering to visitors.

So, champagne and strawberries in a New York hotel suite? Fresh tempura in a Tokyo high-rise? A warm fire and a soft couch in Yosemite? All very nice, but give me a cup of hot chocolate, a bunk, a porthole, and a set of diver gear at the ready and I'll be just fine, thank you.

Read about Aquarius at NOAA's Aquarius website.
Read about NEEMO 15 and its work with Aquarius in the
Huffington Post.

1 comment:

David Ralph said...

I have only been in Aquarius at the Eco-Discovery Centre, and it was fascinating.

The centre really shows the importance of all the work that is going on in the keys to protect the eco-system and I for one believe that no one should be allowed to visit the Keys until they spend time in the centre.

All the best

David Ralph