|Research type||Underwater research and ocean exploration|
|Location||Florida Keys, Florida|
|Operating agency||University of North Carolina–Wilmington (until 2012)
Florida International University (from 2013)
|Website||Aquarius Reef Base|
The NOAA Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater habitat located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, adjacent to Conch Reef. It is one of the few underwater research facilities in the world dedicated to science. Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and was operated by the University of North Carolina–Wilmington until 2013 when Florida International University took over.
Aquarius, designed by Perry Submarine Builders of Florida and constructed by Victoria Machine Works, was built in Victoria, Texas, in 1986. Its original name was "the George F. Bond". Underwater operations were first planned for Catalina Island, California, but were moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Aquarius was taken to NURC for repairs and refurbishment and was redeployed in the Florida Keys in 1992. Aquarius is located under 20 m (66 ft) of water at the base of a coral reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, an ideal site for studying the health of sensitive coral reefs.
The laboratory is most often used by marine biologists for whom Aquarius acts as home base as they study the coral reef, the fish and aquatic plants that live nearby and the composition of the surrounding seawater. Aquarius houses sophisticated lab equipment and computers, enabling scientists to perform research and process samples without leaving their underwater facilities.
The habitat accommodates four scientists and two technicians for missions averaging ten days. Scientists on the Aquarius are often called "Aquanauts". Because Aquarius allows saturation diving, dives from the habitat can last for up to nine hours at a time; by comparison, surface dives usually last between one to two hours. These long dive times allow for observation that would not otherwise be possible. Way stations on the reef outside Aquarius allow aquanauts to refill their scuba tanks during dives.
Aquarius consists of three compartments. Access to the water is made via the 'wet porch', a chamber equipped with a moon pool, which keeps the air pressure inside the wet porch the same as the water pressure at that depth ('ambient pressure'), about 2.6 atmospheres, through hydrostatic equilibrium. The main compartment is strong enough, like a submarine, to maintain normal atmospheric pressure, and can also be pressurized to ambient pressure, and is usually held at a pressure in between. The smallest compartment, the Entry Lock, is between the other two and functions as an airlock in which personnel wait while pressure is adjusted to match either the wet porch or the main compartment.
This design enables personnel to return to the surface without the need for a decompression chamber when they get there. Personnel stay inside the main compartment for 17 hours before ascending as the pressure is slowly reduced, so that they do not suffer decompression sickness after the ascent.
Underwater missions and research
Several missions on the Aquarius have been canceled due to hurricane activity. During Hurricane Gordon in 1994, a crew of scientists and divers had to evacuate Aquarius and climb up a rescue line to the surface in 15-foot seas after one of the habitat's generators caught fire. In 1998, Hurricane Georges nearly destroyed Aquarius, breaking a joint in one of its legs and moving two 8000-pound weights on the wet porch nearly off the structure. Both Hurricane Georges and Hurricane Mitch, later in 1998, also destroyed way stations outside Aquarius used to refill aquanauts' scuba tanks. In 2005, Hurricane Rita broke two of the habitat's seabed anchors and moved one end of Aquarius by twelve feet. As of 2008, no scientists or staff members had been injured at Aquarius due to storms.
Since 2001, NASA has used Aquarius for its NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) program, to study various aspects of human spaceflight in a similar environment. Like the environment of space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live. Aquarius provides a safe harbor for scientists to live and work for weeks at a time.
A diver named Dewey Smith died during a dive from Aquarius in May 2009. A subsequent investigation determined that Smith's death was caused by a combination of factors, including the failure of the electronic functions of his Inspiration closed circuit rebreather due to hydrodynamic forces from a hydraulic impact hammer being used nearby.
Due to budget cuts, NOAA ceased funding Aquarius after September 2012, with no further missions scheduled after a July 2012 mission that included pioneering female diver Sylvia Earle in its aquanaut crew. The University of North Carolina Wilmington was also unable to provide funding to continue operations. The Aquarius Foundation was set up in an attempt to keep Aquarius functioning. In a two-week series the daily cartoon strip Sherman's Lagoon featured the potential closing of the Aquarius facility in the week starting September 10, 2012, and continued with a cameo appearance of Sylvia Earle in the week starting September 17, 2012, to discuss the importance of Aquarius. In January 2013, a proposal to keep Aquarius running under Florida International University administration was accepted.
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- ENN. Age of Aquarius: Undersea lab immersed in coral reef research, 2000.
- NOAA. Hurricane Charlie cuts short Aquarius undersea mission, 2004
- Plain, C. From the Ocean Depths to Deep Space, 2004
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Aquarius (laboratory).|
- Official website
- Aquarius Foundation
- NEEMO missions
- Aquarius' Live Web Cams (Available only during research missions)
- NOAA Aquarius
- NASA Uses Unique Undersea Lab to Prep For Future Exploration[dead link]