May 4, 2010
NOAA’s Aquarius, the world’s only permanent underwater laboratory, will host a new team of “aquanauts” in support of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations mission. This is the 14th such mission since 2001. The May 10-23 mission will be the first of the 2010 season, and will involve aquanauts testing exploration concepts and conducting life sciences experiments focused on human behavior, performance and physiology. All of this will occur in a low gravity underwater environment that closely resembles space.
High resolution (Credit: NOAA)
Aquarius is owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. It supports marine science and undersea technology development to advance NOAA’s marine ecosystem management goals. This year’s research projects at Aquarius include an experiment on coral restoration and resilience, a study of ocean acidification around coral reefs, a study of Florida coral reef sponges and their impacts on water quality, a study of how herbivore diversity affects coral reefs, and an educational project called “If Reefs Could Talk.” These studies reveal information about rates of nitrogen processing by sponges and coral ecosystem interactions that would be more difficult to obtain using traditional diving methods.
The Aquarius undersea laboratory provides both a living quarters and a decompression chamber that allow divers to carry out saturation diving. This allows divers to live and work underwater for days, weeks or even months at a time without returning to the surface. “Saturation” refers to the fact that, after about 24 hours, the diver's tissues have absorbed the maximum gas possible for that depth. Once the body is saturated, decompression — the period required to bring the diver gradually back to surface pressure— is the same regardless of how much time has been spent underwater. At the Aquarius’ depth, decompression takes up to 17 hours.
Aquarius is located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, three and half miles offshore and next to coral reefs at a depth of 60 feet. The Aquarius Reef Base is composed of the Aquarius undersea laboratory, its nearby seafloor oceanographic research stations and its shore-side support facility in Key Largo. For more information about Aquarius and upcoming missions, visit the Aquarius Web page.
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