|Posted on Jun 17, 2012 09:09:33 AM | NASA Testing for Human Space Exploration | 1 Comments ||
By Dr. Stan Love
Image at right: Stan Love (in the sub) talks with Darlene Lim as he prepares for his nighttime DeepWorker flight.
I last blogged in October 2011 during the 15th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) test. I had come to Florida to drive DeepWorker submersibles as part of NEEMO's asteroid mission simulation, but the threat of a hurricane cut short our work. Although I didn't get to drive the sub that year, there was an opportunity to do a short scuba dive at the Aquarius habitat, which provided more than enough material for a blog entry. Before that, I blogged about piloting the DeepWorker in a deep, clear mountain lake in Canada for the Pavilion Lake Research Project in July 2010.
This year I'm in Florida again for NEEMO 16, working as a Capcom (Capsule Communicator) in the Mobile Mission Control Center and as a sub pilot. We're about halfway through the Aquarius crew's twelve-day mission, which has been going smoothly and according to plan. Unfortunately there has been more uncertainty for the submersibles. They arrived here on time aboard the support ship Lana Rose, but technical problems and high waves made it difficult to put them in the water for the marine science dives they were scheduled to carry out during the first part of the mission.
The sun set while we finished preparations for the dive. Steve and I climbed into our subs, went through our final checks, and got hoisted into the water. By then it was completely dark.
All my previous DeepWorker flights had been in daylight. Although the lighting was dim in Vancouver harbor and at the bottom of Pavilion Lake, being in a sub in total darkness was a new experience for me. The small computer monitor and video camera screens in the cockpit provided a little light, and I had two flashlights on a cord around my neck, but the sub's powerful external lights shone out into empty water and showed nothing outside. It was a little like being in space.
Moving along the planned route, the flat bottom suddenly ended in a steep incline: the slope of Conch Reef. You can't imagine a greater contrast. Instead of a featureless plain of white sand, here was a rough, jumbled wall of old reef rock encrusted with thousands of sponges, sea whips, sea fans, and little coral colonies in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of red, orange, purple, mauve, and brown with an occasional flash of fluorescent blue.
My job was to follow a pre-planned route and to take detailed video imagery of whatever I encountered, focusing on coral colonies and the appropriately named barrel sponges. There were plenty of both, but it was the more mobile reef creatures that caught my eye the most. Early in the flight a small moray eel, white with black spots, stuck its head out of its cleft in the rock and gaped at me. Squadrons of torpedo-like squid, a foot or so in length and with eyes that shone like a cat's, kept formation with the sub at the edge of its circle of illumination. Close to the sub's lights, a galaxy of small animals swarmed. There were thousands of tiny moving transparent rods, like little sections of pencil lead, and larval squid a centimeter or so in length that looked like they were made of glass. Frenetically corkscrewing pink worms wriggled past. Now and then a school of shiny little fish would come up to eat the creatures attracted by the lights.
At one point, Topside suggested that I settle on a patch of sand, turn off my lights, and look for bioluminescence. I tried that, aiming my video camera up into the water column to see if any creatures out there were making their own light. With the lights off, it was profoundly dark outside. I looked hard for flashes of blue or green, but didn't see any. I turned the lights back on and moved toward the next waypoint.
Ever since I was little, I've thought that cephalopods (squids, octopuses, and their relatives) were cool. I encountered plenty of them on this mission, besides the ones already mentioned. A cuttlefish, with a plump brown-striped body and tentacles held rigidly curled in front of it, cruised past the sub's transparent dome. Abruptly, its stripes grew wider and darker, demonstrating the amazing color-changing ability that these animals possess. Then the cuttlefish zipped away. Later in the mission, out on another sandy flat, my eye caught motion in a large conch shell resting in the sand. I drove the sub over for a closer look at what I thought would turn out to be another hermit crab, several of which I had already seen trundling across the sea bed with their snail-shell houses on their backs. But the animal that cautiously peeked back out of this shell was no hermit crab. It was soft, and mottled brown, with a pulsing mantle and a siphon. It was an octopus! I hadn't seen one in the wild since I was a kid. What a treat! I recorded some video for the biologists, then turned the sub away only to see a large spiny lobster scuttle past. It seemed to know that it was in a bad place, out on the sand and far from the protective cover of the reef, and was making all speed for a better place to hide.
All too soon Steve and I reached the final waypoints of our flight plans and it was time to return to the ship. We had been in the water for almost four hours and it was well past midnight. As we prepared to surface, Steve brought his sub close to mine, then took video of me leaving the sea floor. I lifted off slowly, the sub rotating slightly to bring its lights in line with the ship above and trailing a plume of disturbed sediment behind it. It looked very much like a slow-motion version of an Apollo lunar ascent module lifting off the Moon forty years ago. Meanwhile, aboard ship, another video camera recorded the brilliantly lighted sub approaching the surface in a circle of bright blue water.
Once back on deck, the Nuytco crew helped Steve and me secure the sub cockpits and climb out. Latency showed up a few minutes later to take us back to shore and sleep after an incredible night dive.
I have two more days here at NEEMO 16. With luck, I'll fly another sub mission. This one will have a very different focus. Instead of taking images and making observations for marine biology, I'll be working with the aquanaut crew on a very complex real-time underwater simulation of a human exploration mission to a near-Earth asteroid. But that will be a topic for a future blog.
Learn more about NEEMO at www.nasa.gov/neemo
Tags : Analogs, NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations), field testing