Living UnderwaterLatest update July 18, 2019 Started on February 12, 2019
During this expedition I study the changes in human physiology and psychology in response to living in an underwater habitat, at 60 feet deep, and explore the ocean, as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO).
Splashdown! Mission Day 1_2
The NEEMO 23 crew successfully “splashed down” at 11:06 a.m. EDT, on June 13th to start the 9-day mission aboard Aquarius. As we swam down to the Aquarius habitat entrance we stopped for a brief moment for photos and quickly entered the habitat through the moon pool.
As soon as we entered, Mark and Tom welcomed us, who were already in the habitat to prepare everything for our arrival, so we could get to work immediately. These guys have been part of many similar missions before us so we knew that we were in good hands. The day was very busy as we completed safety briefings on our new home, got all of the gear unpacked, set up, and stowed. Previous crews have compared the hectic pace of splashdown day to their first hours of spaceflight. These activities went smoothly and are a testimony to the significant amount of preparation the crew and topside team accomplished prior to the start of the mission. We also accomplished two orientation dives: the first hardhat dives from the habitat, so we could get familiar with gearing up, checking communication channels and exiting, entering the habitat. These EVAs were relatively short, lasted only for an hour and we stayed near the habitat.
Our days were planned months in advance, minute by minute and we had a very crowded schedule that we had to constantly keep track of. We used a specific tool for this, on the computer a continuously moving red line represented the real time and we had to keep up with accomplishing the planned tasks as the red line was moving. For the NEEMO 23 mission, this plan execution tool was Playbook, which was developed by NASA Ames Research Center and is specifically designed for use by crew to support mission operations. It is mobile, web-based, and designed to be flexible enough to work on a tablet device or in a traditional web browser. Used as the primary mission operations tool, Playbook allows controllers and crew to see the mission plan and schedule changes in real-time or through fully simulated time-delay. New features under evaluation included one that makes it very easy for the crew to collaboratively self-schedule flexible tasks, tactically execute EVAs to help with real time projections and avoid manual rework of time calculations, ability to add timeline notes and plan commentary to the plan, and a new feature to manipulate groups of tasks to the timeline and keep the ground informed as they do so. The objective was that with crew feedback they will continue to make this tool even more capable. Playbook previously flew on ISS in 2015.
A short demonstration video about Playbook can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RCzA8HasH4
More photos on the NEEMO 23 mission at: https://csillaari.com/neemo-project
On the photos you can see: 1) Our team is on site and ready for diving down to Aquarius 2) From Upper Left Clockwise: Samantha Cristoforetti, Shirley Pomponi, Csilla Ari D’Agostino, Jessica Watkins. Window from Left: Mark Hulsbeck, Tom Horn, 3) Our team approaching the entrance/moonpool of the Aquarius habitat 4) I am geared up and ready to exit the habitat through the moonpool for the first EVA Video: exiting the Aquarius habitat for the first time through the moonpool to conduct the first simulated spacewalk (EVA)
Splashdown! Mission Day 1.1
After long preparations the big day was finally here! We started the day early with lots of excitement and anticipation. As the sun was coming up we boarded the boat, we had our last safety briefings and prepared our dive gear for this unique dive: down to the Aquarius habitat. We thanked the surface support team for all their hard work that let us get to this point and had our last photos taken before the boat departed from the ARB docks. During the one-hour long boat ride everyone was quiet as we mentally prepared for one of our biggest adventures of our lives.
On the photos you can see 1) Saying goodbyes to the surface support team, friends and family, 2) Last safety briefings with the head of dive operations 3) Our mission Commander, Samantha is thanking the surface support team for all their work 4) We are ready for the challenge as our boat is leaving the docks, Video: our boat is leaving Islamorada, More photos on the mission at https://csillaari.com/neemo-project
End of training week 2
After the mission start has been postponed by 3 days in order to make sure that all the systems were set up and functioning properly, we took advantage of the extra time and received some additional training on several project objectives. The topside team spent a week providing crew training, finalizing mission products, plans, procedures and preparing the tools and equipment for the mission. The crew spent their days completing aquanaut training with the staff of the Aquarius Reef Base (ARB). We learned about Aquarius habitat systems, qualified to dive with Kirby Morgan dive helmets and continued to receive extensive training in the evenings on the NASA content of the mission, including becoming familiar with the sponge species and sampling equipment we needed to work with. We made sure that after the long days at training we found time to have nice dinners together while the pressure was building up before splashdown.
On the photos you can see 1) Csilla is gearing up for a training dive with assistance from Roger Garcia, ARB Operations Director and dive trainer (sometimes it is nice to have someone to lift your head up, especially if it is so heavy), 2) Not that easy to walk with the full gear, especially on a bouncing boat, 3) Briefing about all the equipment being transported to the habitat, 4) Team dinner
End of training week
Since the NEEMO mission was extremely busy with very intense schedule I was not able to post here, but now that my life is getting back to normal I wanted to share some of our adventures and the interesting projects we participated in. As a general overview, the NEEMO 23 mission tested the combination of exploration EVAs (extravehicular activity) and ISS (International Space Station)/ Orion (a spacecraft built by NASA to carry 4-person crew to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit) related objectives. Specifically, during this mission we conducted Lunar-relevant EVAs, which means that we simulated the gravity on the Lunar surface while we were out on EVAs.
Just to mention a few objectives that I am going to discuss more extensively in the upcoming blog posts, during these EVAs we helped tested different sampling techniques, we setup deep, long-term coral nurseries, which supports ongoing research and restoration efforts in collaboration with the Coral Restoration Foundation and Florida Atlantic University. A system for rescuing an incapacitated crew member on the lunar surface was also evaluated, that was sponsored by ESA (European Space Agency). On the ISS/Orion side we had a number of objectives including the use of a scanning electron microscope, countermeasure equipment, autonomous reality (AR) procedure execution, evaluation of concepts and technologies to improve efficiency of communication systems, a technology for very precise tracking of people and devices on board the habitat and studies related to psychological and physiological response to oxidative stress.
On the photos you can see 1) Csilla getting in the water from the boat during one of the training dives, 2) Jessica and Csilla being trained by ESA specialist Herve Stevenin, 3) Samantha being trained in the Diver Augmented Vision Display by the Saturation Diving System Program Manager at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Paul McMurtrie, 4) Getting training on the EVA tools from Adam Naids, our backup crew
In addition to the crew training, my days are busy with coordinating our teams experiments, but luckily we have some of our students down here at Islamorada to help out with the overwhelming logistics that is involved with data collection. We have completed most of the baseline data collection and now preparing for the in-habitat experimental logistics. Sahil Bharwani and Anand Rehsi from my laboratory are helping with my project on psychological function, studying changes in stress level, cognitive function and team cognition, sensory and motor function. Sara Moss, Karina Noboa and Mark Mousa are here, from my husbands, Dominic DAgostinos laboratory, and they help conducting tests on body composition, microbiome, sleep quality changes and metabolic studies. We had limited time to complete all the tests needed and there are constant changes that we need to adapt instantly, so it is great to see how our team works together more and more efficiently to make everything happen.
The motor replacement kit for the ROV arrived today and Dan was able to fix the stuck propellers. The first test turned out great, although the lights needed for the detection of marine fluorescence changed the bouyancy of the ROV which therefore needs further adjustments.
The engineering mission started yesterday, the Mission Directors and our habitat technicians headed down to Aquarius to prepare and setup all the hardware, wifi etc. so as soon as our team gets down there we can jump right into performing the experiments. This is the first time Aquarius is fully functioning since the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, nearly 2 years ago.
The mission start has been postponed to make sure everything is prepared properly, so we will splash down on Thursday and should get in the habitat around 11:30am EST.
On the photos you can see the equipment from the European Space Agency that will be used underwater to practice lunar evacuation procedures, my team supervising during baseline data collection, Sara practicing body composition measurements and a morning mission meeting.
Once we are in the habitat, you can follow us on live cameras here: https://aquarius.fiu.edu/news-and-events/watch-live/index.html
The extensive training is still ongoing before starting the NEEMO 23 mission. We have been doing all kinds of emergency procedure drills with regular scuba gear and also learned about hard hat diving. It is not an easy task since only the helmet weigh 32 pounds, in addition to all other gear that we would wear during scuba diving. Once we are in the water it is surprisingly comfortable and it was very strange that we could communicate and talk to each other in the helmet. We also practiced wearing the hard hat diving equipment around the Aquarius habitat, it was so much fun climbing on and around the habitat just like spiderman. The countdown has started: 3 more days to go before splash down!
The last couple days were very productive, we have been making very good progress and learning lots of new information before the upcoming NEEMO mission. In addition to the intensive training I am still working on the modifications that are needed in order to collect plankton samples from around the underwater habitat and record marine fluorescence with the ROV. After building a small plankton collection device a couple days ago, I have been trying to figure out how to attach the special lights and filters to the Trident ROV in order to detect marine fluorescence. I was very lucky that I have received some help when I least expected it. Don Liberatore, Chief Submersible Pilot from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute offered his help and within a day he did miracles: he planned out the design and attached two lights to the ROV and tomorrow we will work on securing the special filter in front of the camera lens. We are getting closer to doing some very exciting observations while living underwater in the coming days!
The mission start day is getting closer and we arrived at Islamorada to start to prepare on site. I wanted to test the ROV, but some of the propellers were stuck so I am getting a motor replacement kit. As you can tell from the photos my dogs were curious to explore this 'strange new device' as I was trying to make it work. Hopefully the kit will arrive in time and changing the motors will solve the problem. In the meantime I crafted a plankton collection device that can be attached to the ROV, so we can collect plankton samples from around the habitat. We also had the chance to visit the Jules undersea lodge and the MarineLab Undersea Laboratory Museum that are located nearby. Our official training will start tomorrow, so the crew is getting ready for the first day.
I am extremely honored and beyond excited that I was selected by NASA to be part of the crew on the next NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation (NEEMO) 23. Living underwater in the Aquarius habitat is currently the best space analog where we can prepare for lunar and deep space explorations. There will be several research projects to help us better understand potential challenges that come with living in such an extreme environment and test several emerging technologies inside the habitat and during simulated spacewalks, called extravehicular activities (EVAs). Among many other research objectives, the mission will include testing tracking and augmented reality devices, space exercise equipment, lunar landing simulator and specialized equipment for lunar evacuation. We will also work with a scanning electron microscope that will be operated underwater for the first time and we will have several marine science objectives that focus on sponge and coral research, while simulating lunar geological exploration. In addition, our team will run a series of tests to pinpoint the physiological and psychological changes that occur under such conditions.
I will use my ROV to monitor the seafloor, collect plankton samples and detect marine fluorescence around the habitat. The best part is that I will be able to work alongside such accomplished and inspiring women, such as Samantha Cristoforetti, Jessica Watkins and Dr. Shirley Pomponi. The next couple weeks will be pretty intense, but can't wait to contribute to science and humanity on the way to lunar and deep space exploration.
We are continuing to prepare for the NEEMO XXIII mission as the start date is quickly approaching. There is still a lot to do before June. The new team is getting extensive training on how to assist with the experiments from Mission Control. Here are some photos as we practice on how to collect fast and accurate measurements on body composition changes, autonomic function, heart rate, sleep quality, cognitive function, stress, reaction time, working memory, vision, taste perception, dexterity and muscle strength. The mission timeline is very tight so we have to make sure that those few minutes we are getting will be enough for us to accomplish the data collection.
One morning I looked out the window and saw something at the bottom of our pool. I run out to see what it might be and I decided that the ROV will be perfect to further explore who is this unexpected visitor....watch the video to get an update on my current maneuvering abilities (hint: needs improvement) and to find out who was the visitor in our pool. Of course, the visitor was later released back in the wild.
Testing the Trident ROV in the pool while preparing for the upcoming expeditions. (Btw, do you know about my other expedition, the Manta Rays of Brazil? if not, you can follow it here: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/mantaraysofbrazil))
I find it relatively easy to manouver the ROV in the pool when I can follow it with my eyes how it responds, but still having difficulty operating it when I look at only the screen of the controller...I guess that is the disadvantage of never playing video games with similar controllers
Here is the first photo of our new team! After the first, 3-hours long training session the new team is starting to prepare for the NEEMO 23 mission. Students and collaborators from the University of South Florida will help coordinating the psychological and physiological experiments from the mission control.
Today I received the Trident OpenROV and I could not wait until the morning to try it out, so I tested it in the pool! It was fairly easy to set it up and make it work and I really enjoyed practicing the basic maneuvering! Videos coming soon!
In this post I would like to introduce you to our team we worked with during NEEMO 22!
As you can see on the team photo, many people contributed to the success of the mission, so I won`t be able to mention everyone in this post. One of the biggest highlight of this experience for me was that I was able to work together with such highly professional people. I have never worked with people who were able to focus on their highly demanding tasks from morning to evening so efficiently while adjusting to dozens of other projects and people, and whenever any problems or changes to schedules came up e.g. due to weather or other factors they always stayed focused and quickly found a solution together.
The main priority of the mission directors, Bill and Marc from NASA was to make sure that everyone was safe and productive during the mission. They oversee all activities and make all the major decisions. Scientists and astronauts joined us from the European Space Agency (ESA) and from the Japanese Space Station as well and participated in the mission as crew member, accomplished several scientific objectives and provided a lot of assistance with the operation of the mission control.
The next photo shows the crew members of the NEEMO 22 mission: Kjell, astronaut from NASA, Pedro, astronaut from ESA, Trevor, planetary geologist from NASA and my husband, Dominic representing USF, IHMC and Ketone Technologies. The two habitat technicians, Sean and Otter had the extremely important role of keeping the crew safe and the habitat functional during the mission. (On the photo from left to right: Pedro, Dominic, Sean, Otter, Kjell, Trevor)
The site is managed by Florida International University and their people assisted with all logistics connected to diving and boating. Very professional people who take safety in and on the water seriously. To accomplish our research objectives we had a team of colleagues from other Institutes and students helping out. On the photo from left to right the first is Kristen, who helped us with everything. She coordinated all the logistics and made sure everything goes smooth. Next to Kristen is Andrew, a super talented and driven graduate student at USF who coordinated the experiments on sleep studies, collecting heart rate variability with some cool devices and collected data on changes in body composition. Next to Andrew is myself and my husband, Dominic. As a crew member he was the subject of all the experiments that were designed for them. On his right are Janine and Chris, also from USF, who helped with all the data collection, whenever it was needed.
On the next photo Steve, -director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at the University of Central Florida-, and me: we were responsible for the experiments on changes in psychological function, for collecting data on working memory, reaction time, risk decision making, stress, individual and team cognition, sensory and motor function changes.
Many more people to mention who worked tirelessly before, during and after the 10 days mission, but I will write more about them and about each research projects in the next posts.
This year our research team will change, new projects will be added, other people will join us to make sure we can accomplish all the exciting experiments, so stay tune until the next post!
I am happy to share the great news with you that the S.E.E. (Science Exploration Education) Initiative contacted me that they are donating an ROV for the project! So looking forward to working with the Trident ROV which will be an extremely valuable tool during the NEEMO mission, but first I will have to set it up for the specific experiments that I would like to use it for. I am going to keep you updated about the progress once I receive it and get the first underwater images!
In the meantime you can watch master filmmaker and explorer James Cameron and OpenROV co-founder David Lang discuss the S.E.E. Initiative at the National Geographic Explorers Festival: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/see
Before I would get into describing the experiments in more detail, I wanted to give an overview about the habitat itself, where the experiments take place. Aquarius is a fully equipped underwater laboratory and living space that has several components. It is a 82-ton double-lock pressure vessel that is about 14-meters long by 3-meters in diameter. The scientists enter and exit the habitat through the 20-m3 wet porch, which contains an open moon pool, dive equipment storage areas, and hot water heater and shower. The basic layout can be seen on the drawings.
After the wet porch the next compartment is the 14-m3 "entry lock," which contains bench space for computers and experiments, power equipment, life support controls, small viewports and bathroom facilities. The largest living space is the 40-m3 "main lock." It includes benches for the six-person crew, computer work stations, two large viewports, kitchen facilities that include a microwave, instant hot water dispenser, refrigerator, sink, and dining and work areas. The main lock also contains life support controls, so both the entry and main locks can be independently pressurized.
The Aquarius is standing on a 116-ton structure that provides a stable and level support base for the habitat. Each of the four legs contains 25 tons of lead ballast.
There is a constant 3 atmosphere absolute pressure inside the habitat, so a human body is going to start getting dangerously saturated with nitrogen if someone spends more time in there than the diving limits (22 min). After 24 hours the participants` body becomes completely saturated, that is when they are announced to become Aquanauts. Quickly returning to the surface from that point would be lethal.
The Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater habitat, located around 5 miles off Islamorada in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This undersea laboratory is sitting on the ocean floor at ~62 feet (19 meters) below the surface and is one of the three undersea laboratories in the world dedicated to science and education, to the study and preservation of marine ecosystems. Scientists here use cutting edge research to understand coral reefs, ocean acidification, climate change, fisheries and the overall ocean health.
The habitat also serves to test emerging technologies that can potentially be used in space missions in the future and can be used to study human physiology in response to living in saturation for extended periods of time. Of course, it presents a unique opportunity to study marine life from the habitat: it is possible to go out and walk on the seafloor as a simulated spacewalk (called extravehicular activity: EVA), but these visits are restricted in time and distance. Aquarius was built in Victoria, Texas, in 1986 and operations first began in the United States Virgin Islands, in St. Croix’s Salt River Canyon in 1988. After 13 missions and Hurricane Hugo, Aquarius was relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1990 where it was refurbished and it was deployed at its present location in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The habitat is connected to a 10meter diameter life support buoy that floats over the habitat, which serves as a communication tower, it has over 70-square meters of inside workspace, two diesel-powered generators, two air compressors, VHF radios, a cell phone, and a microwave broadcasting system. It is linked to Aquarius by a three-inch diameter umbilical which is comprised of hoses that supply air from the compressors and oxygen from storage flasks, power lines from the generators, and data and communications cables. The microwave telemetry system provides reliable audio, video, and data transmission between Aquarius and shore. Usually 6 people stays in the habitat, which is a about the size of an RV.
Click on the link for an interactive virtual tour of the habitat! https://aquarius.fiu.edu/educators/aquarius-interactive/index.html
I have been so fortunate that in 2017 I was involved in the NEEMO 22 mission. If you are not familiar with this abbreviation: it stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. These couple-day long missions take place at an underwater habitat, called Aquarius Reef Base, off Key West once a year. It is a space analog, where they simulate space missions and often previous or future astronauts are the crew members together with scientists. One purpose of these missions is to prepare future astronauts for high stress situations, while continuously facing high task load in a confined space, from where there is no easy way to return. The other main objectives are to study changes in human physiology and psychology in response to living in saturation, as well as to test new technologies that potentially will be used during space missions in the future. Of course, living underwater for 10 days provides an excellent opportunity to study the ocean and its inhabitants in a way that otherwise would not be possible. We are starting to prepare for the next mission and I am excited to share this adventure with you as a National Geographic Open Explorer!
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