September 23, 2013
Aquarius: Practicing For Space In The Ocean
In 2012, redOrbit reported that the world’s only undersea research lab, Aquarius, was closing its doors due to lack of funding. Now, happily, I read that the doors are reopening, thanks to help from Florida International University (FIU).
The research center sits (covered in all kinds of sea creatures) at 63 feet below the surface of the ocean, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, next to deep coral reefs. Because scientists can stay in the lab for around 10 days at a time (longer missions are planned), they can spend all day studying coral reefs and other marine life, rather than relying on the short time they have just doing diving missions.
The reopening of the lab means that as well as more extensive research into the workings of the ocean, space scientists and astronauts can once again use the environment to prepare for space missions. This includes practising for expeditions to other planets and for studying asteroids. On an asteroid, conditions would be much more precarious than on the moon. Using Aquarius and its environment, astronauts from NASA and the European and Japanese space agencies can try out collecting samples, for which they need both hands, while still being aware of safety and stability. By adjusting the buoyancy of their diving suits, astronauts can get used to the experience of weightlessness and different gravitational conditions.
As well as the research element, I am interested in what life is like inside places such as Aquarius, during downtime. According to FIU, ‘Located inside the 81–ton, 43 x 20 x 16.5–foot underwater laboratory are all the comforts of home: six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water, a microwave, trash compactor, and a refrigerator, even air conditioning and computers linked back to shore by wireless telemetry!’
So, I guess the guys and girls down there could have a nice cold drink and some freshly popped corn and watch the big game if they like. Pretty impressive. I wonder if the NASA team down there have the same wakeup call system as astronauts on shuttles, who apparently are awoken by songs played to them by Houston; and they can request which songs they want as their alarm call. Astronauts on space stations don’t get this privilege though, so Aquarius could go either way. And perhaps the marine scientists wouldn’t be too happy if they suddenly start having to listen to Metallica every morning just because they are kind enough to share their lab with NASA.
It’s good to hear that Aquarius is up and running again; during difficult economic periods it’s easy to say that funding for things like this has to go because it’s not a priority, but that fails to look at the bigger picture and to see things long term. High-end research such as this leads to other new technology and research that spreads out from the center. And, at a more abstract level, I believe that for a lot of people knowing that cool stuff like this goes on gives them the drive to think that the world is an interesting place to live and succeed in, not just a dull, dry place of bleak economic statistics.
Image Credit: DJ Roller, Liquid Pictures via FIU