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Science Fiction Becomes Reality: Asteroids and the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory

Posted: 10/26/11 04:26 PM ET

People once dreamed of living under the sea. Today, we are not only doing it, but also using undersea living as an extraordinary tool to train the next generation of astronauts. For the next few days, the world's only underwater scientific laboratory, Aquarius, is home to the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation (NEEMO). NEEMO 15 is testing innovative solutions to engineering challenges that will be faced by a potential manned mission to an asteroid.

The similarities between living in space and undersea provide a unique means for NASA to prepare for the extreme. Located three and a half miles off Key Largo, Florida, and based at a depth of about fifty feet, six aquanauts will live and work around the clock in the Aquarius. There they are using advanced diving techniques to explore and work in the surrounding waters. Communication support from the surface simulates mission control on Earth. In the weightlessness of the underwater environment, techniques used are similar to those needed in space and equipment and procedures have application to a future asteroid mission.

The team involved is multi-national and interdisciplinary. Astronaut Shannon Walker, former International Space Station crew member, is leading the aquanaut team. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takuya Onishi, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and Steven Squyres of Cornell University round out the science team. Squyres is the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project. James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which operates Aquarius, are professional habitat technicians/divers. Topside, veteran spacewalkers Mike Gernhardt, Stan Love, and Richard Arnold are piloting the small Deepworker submarines that are being used during the mission.

Related to future space programs, NASA has been mandated by the White House and the Congress to explore deep space with a targeted focus on a mission to an asteroid; first in an unmanned vehicle and later with a crewed spaceship. NASA's asteroid exploration objectives include mitigating threats to planet Earth from potential impacts. Catastrophic asteroid impacts have happened before -- say goodbye to the dinosaurs -- and they will happen again. Geological samples from an asteroid could also help us learn about the history of our solar system and planet. While robotic missions could potentially be used to return asteroid samples, human intelligence and presence enable decisions about where to collect samples and potentially even where to place detonation devices.

A space mission to an asteroid may also be a stepping-stone to other deep space missions, including to the moons of Mars (possibly captured asteroids themselves) or even the Red Planet itself. Such missions will require extensive travel time, during which the crew will be in cramped quarters with significantly delayed communications with Earth and no chance of rescue in the event of an emergency. For an extended period, and in isolation, crews will have to administer emergency medical treatments; monitor physical, physiological and nutritional health; repair software and hardware; and mitigate potential disasters. Solving unexpected problems through improvisation and inventiveness has always been a critical element of exploration.

Fortunately, the Aquarius Reef Base currently provides a platform to test all of these activities and goals. The undersea habitat provides an optimum environment for the crew to practice extravehicular activity preparation and maneuvers. The isolation and constrained aquanaut quarters, the harsh environment (there are significant risks associated with working underwater), and reduced gravity presents challenges similar to those that will be encountered during a deep space mission. But most of all, the Aquarius allows for improvisation and adaptation of techniques to help prepare for a mission to an asteroid, which is likely to have many unforeseen challenges.

The Aquarius is a national gem that has received far less attention than is deserved. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration owns Aquarius and provides operational funding. The underwater laboratory is operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

University researchers regularly use the underwater laboratory to conduct cutting-edge marine science projects and for technology development. School kids and teachers have also participated in Aquarius missions through outreach events. The underwater laboratory has been operating since 1993 at Conch Reef, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Over 100 missions have been conducted, resulting in hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, popular science articles, educational programs, and television spots. Aquarius should be as well-known as the International Space Station, but with a budget that is fraction of what NASA receives, education and outreach have always taken a back seat to science and operations. Most people are surprised when they learn how relatively small the annual Aquarius budget is -- approximately $2.5 million, which includes funds that go to the science community to conduct projects.

Aquarius, despite its limited budget, supports one of the longest-running and detailed coral reef programs in the world, and also includes ocean observing platforms and surface-based research. Together, they are known as the Aquarius Reef Base. The importance of the Aquarius cannot be exaggerated. Results address the use of marine reserves as a management tool to conserve coral reef fisheries, understanding coral feeding biology and reproduction, impacts of elevated seawater temperature on coral biology, examination of ocean acidification as a stressor affecting coral reefs, nutrient dynamics related to pollution, ground-breaking work on coral reef sponges, and much more. All of this work, conducted by people working underwater, helps inform managers and policy-makers about the condition of our coral reefs and ocean.

Although there's been a long debate of manned versus unmanned exploration of the ocean, just as there has been most recently in our space program, there is no question that humans provide a unique and irreplaceable perspective that unmanned vehicles simply cannot. Imagine the expeditions of Lewis and Clark -- without Lewis and Clark. Imagine their diaries without the color, texture and surprises that their personal accounts include, or what we learn from their chronicles of endurance, hardship and hunger.

The answer is not one avenue without the other, in space or the ocean. Indeed, there should be a balance between unmanned and manned exploration. We should provide instrumentation in strategic locations to monitor the condition of the ocean and explore, but at the same time we need to continue to invest in manned research and exploration, such as at Aquarius Reef Base. If we're truly committed to understanding space and the oceans, and preserving our invaluable marine resources, we must renew our commitment to both manned and unmanned space and undersea research and exploration. And no place is this better illustrated than at Aquarius where astronauts go undersea to better explore space!

To witness these exciting underwater and inside-the-habitat activities, visit the NEEMO website.

NOTE: NEEMO 15 ended early because the projected path of Hurricane Rina is expected to impact operations in the next few days. For safety reasons, aquanauts undergo early decompression when Aquarius operations are threatened by major storms.