On August 21, a team of scientists, engineers, and students arrived in waves, loaded with personal gear and equipment for deep sea exploration off the coast of Hawaii. The mission, a joint project with NASA, NOAA, Ocean Exploration Trust and a number of academic institutions, is to explore the Lōihi Seamount with remotely operated vehicles, or robots.
Conditions at this underwater volcano are similar to what scientists believe exist on moons in the outer regions of our solar system. Experts from NASA’s Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog (SUBSEA) team think it is likely that oceans and hydrothermal activity exist beneath an icy crust on Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa.
Robotic dives at Lōihi also offer the opportunity to practice and develop protocols for future missions. Someday, when we reach distant ocean worlds, it is unlikely that humans will be able to enter into these hostile environments; it is more likely that they will deploy robots and explore from the safety of their ship or some other location, much like ocean explorers do today.
In order to develop protocols to guide those future missions, NASA and their partners have gathered a science team at the Inner Space Center at Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography; this team will remotely oversee and direct operations on the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus here in Hawaii. The work will serve as an analog for expeditions where astronauts will communicate across great distances. Experiencing delays and possible technical difficulties first-hand on Earth will enable NASA and their partners to be better prepared for the challenges of deep space exploration.
Back on board the Nautilus last Monday, there were hugs and laughs as those who had sailed on the ship reunited and newcomers were introduced. We were eager to get going, but Hurricane Lane had other plans. The storm intensified and the Coast Guard ordered all ships over a certain size out of the port of Honolulu. Nicole Raineault, vice president of exploration and science operations for the Ocean Exploration Trust shared the news that expedition leaders and the ship’s captain, Pavel Chubar, didn’t feel the science team would be safe on board the ship during the storm. The Nautilus was going to ride out the weather in safer waters north of Maui, but the seas would be rough nonetheless – it was not going to be a place for non-professional mariners.
On Wednesday August 22, we repacked our gear, secured science equipment on the ship, and offloaded in Honolulu. As stores and restaurants closed all over Waikiki where we were staying, it was surreal to see the images of an immense storm heading our way while tourists poured in and out of the shops. The island chain is no stranger to powerful storms, but the last major hurricane occurred in 1992; Hurricane Iniki caused $3.1 billion in damage.
Lane was expected to hit Hawaii on Friday or Saturday, so we stocked up on food and water in case the storm disrupted power and transportation. (Experts recommend your family’s disaster supplies include one gallon of water per person, per day as well as enough food, medicine, and creature comforts like activities for little ones to last at least two weeks. For more on how to prepare your family for disaster visit here and here.)
The slow-moving storm never made landfall on O’ahu, but caused catastrophic flooding to the Big Island, dumping over 50 inches of rain in just a few days.
On August 26, we were transported to the Nautilus via water taxi and immediately set off as teams worked to prepare equipment for operations on Monday morning. The seas weren’t quite as calm as most would like and many napped and stared at the horizon in an effort to quell uneasy stomachs. Most over the counter motion sickness medicines cause drowsiness (and mine was no exception — although the box was labeled “less-drowsy,” it would be more apt if it read “may cause light coma”).
We’re now our way to the Kilauea lava flow, a slow-moving eruption that has caused extensive damage to the Big Island since early spring. Data from the previous Nautilus expedition, Mapping Pacific Seamounts, included signals that look like little bubbles, which they’d never seen before.
Chris German is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and leader of the science data team for this expedition. “It is a process we’ve not had the chance to study previously,” German added as he explained that they are returning to the same spot in order to see if those mysterious bubbles are still present.
He and his team are eager to determine an ideal location future dives. The Nautilus team uses sonar mapping technology to both enhance our understanding of the processes occurring on the ocean floor and to accurately identify where to deploy the robots for exploration. “This may be another kind of hydrothermal system nobody’s ever seen before,” German added with a grin.
We expect to be able to see the flow area from a distance after breakfast Monday morning, and we’re looking forward to launching our first dive operation on the Lōihi Seamount at midnight (HTC) Tuesday morning. Whenever the robots are deployed, the video feed is live-streamed to viewers all over the world at www.nautiluslive.org.
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest; she is a 2018 lead science communication fellow on board the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. Follower her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.
This piece was updated on August 27.