Project SeaCAMEL mission begins

Research and education project attempts a pair of firsts

(November 12, 2007) Virginia Institute of Marine Science Associate Professor Mark Patterson will lead a team of aquanauts as they present six live underwater broadcasts between November 12 and 14 from Aquarius, America’s “Inner Space Station” and the world’s only undersea habitat.

Aquarius is deployed three-and-a half miles off Key Largo, at a depth of 60 feet and adjacent to coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The last broadcast (Wed, 11/14 at 2:00 pm EST) will attempt an underwater first as Gloucester High School senior Michael Crockett uses an Internet connection to control Fetch1, a robotic sub that will be “flying” above Aquarius collecting data in support of the science team’s coral-reef research.

Patterson says “This will be the first time I know that anyone has attempted to control an un-tethered robotic vehicle via the Web. Bob Ballard [discoverer of the Titanic] has controlled Jason via satellite, but that sub is tethered.”

Fetch1, which Patterson designed and built with local engineer Jim Sias, is an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, that moves freely through the water under the control of an onboard computer. Crockett’s navigational instructions will travel the Internet to a dockside hub in Florida, and thence to the sub via a wireless connection.  

Crockett interned with Patterson during his junior year as a Governor's School student, helping develop software that maps the robot’s path and orientation during a mission. A large audience of fellow Gloucester High students will watch Crockett pilot the sub.

Patterson cautions that all aspects of the mission are weather dependent, with Hurricane Noel already affecting next week’s preparations for the upcoming mission.

The six live broadcasts—two a day for three days—are part of project “SeaCAMEL” (Classroom Aquarius Marine Education Live), a research and outreach program funded by the Living Oceans Foundation. The LOF is the brainchild of His Royal Highness Prince Khaled bin Sultan of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The project takes its name from the desert camel’s similarity to the Aquarius habitat, as both possess internal life-support systems.

In addition to the six aquanauts who will live aboard and dive from Aquarius during the SeaCAMEL mission, a team of nine VIMS graduate students will provide topside science support, conducting two one-hour dives per day from a boat anchored above, and helping deploy and pilot the Fetch1 vehicle. VIMS Sea Grant educator Chris Petrone will also join the surface team, along with researchers Ken Collins and Jenny Mallinson of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre in Southampton England.

The aquanauts are Patterson, LOF Executive Director Philip Renaud, USN (ret), LOF Chief Project Scientist Annelise Hagan, videographer DJ Roller (who also filmed the salvage of the USS Monitor), and Aquarius crewmembers Craig Cooper and Jim Buckley. VIMS post-doctoral researcher Daniel Jones will serve as a back up. Aquanauts can spend up to 8 hours per day in the water.

The disparity in dive times between aquanauts and surface divers underscores the utility of the Aquarius habitat: aquanauts can dive much longer because their tissues “saturate” with nitrogen gas. Before surfacing, the aquanauts must decompress for 17 hours to prevent decompression sickness, or “the bends.”

Patterson notes that the SeaCAMEL mission also represents the fist time that Aquarius has been used to teach a graduate-level course. The nine VIMS students working topside are all members of Patterson’s course on Ocean Observing Systems: Technology and Applications, one of only a handful of such courses currently being offered in the U.S.

Patterson, a veteran of eight previous Aquarius missions, says “The mission will give the students a unique opportunity to see how this offshore lab works, and at the same time to collect data with an AUV that they are piloting nearby. I’m excited about directing them in underwater experiments to test hypotheses on the cutting edge of marine science and coral reef ecology.”

Planned experiments will investigate how water flow affects photosynthesis within corals, how size relates to metabolism within sponges, how bottom type relates to the number and types of reef zooplankton, and how the community of organisms growing on Aquarius affects oxygen levels in the surrounding water.

A number of schools and museums are incorporating the SeaCAMEL broadcasts into their curricula. On Thursday, November 15, the aquanauts will conduct a series of live video-teleconferences with pre-selected audiences from inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory throughout the day. Audiences will include school groups from throughout Hampton Roads, the nation, and the world.

Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Schedule of Live Broadcasts


Monday, November 12, 2007 (all times EST)
2:00–3:00 pm Introduction to Aquarius
7:00–8:00 pm The Reef at Night
Tuesday, 13 November 2007 (all times EST)
11:00am–12:00pm Reefs under Siege
2:00–3:00pm Sponges – the Reef’s Filters
Wednesday, 14 November 2007 (all times EST)
11:00am–12:00pm Physical Oceanography
2:00-3:00pm Aquarius as an Artificial Reef
Thursday, 15 November 2007
All day Live video-teleconferences with pre-selected audiences

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