Last summer Aquarius reef base--the world's only remaining underwater research habitat where scientists can live and work underwater for over a week at a time--conducted its final mission in the Florida Keys, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cut its already meager funding from $3m to $0.
I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks diving down to the base last summer and got to see first hand how some experiments really require scientists to be stationed underwater. Some experiments can't be conducted yet by telepresence using robots because of lack of precision or resolution, nor can some experiments be set up during the limited dive time afforded by scuba.
But last week brought good news that Florida International University won a grant to keep Aquarius going. Sort of.
The grant is enough to keep Aquarius actively maintained by its old salty crew, who are full of esoteric knowledge and who know how to keep this thing from rotting away, like all manmade things quickly do in the salt water. But it won't cover scientific mission funding, and so, Aquarius lives, but it's also like it's taking a long nap.
During this nap, the remaining crew of the Aquarius--those who didn't leave for other jobs while the future of the base looked grim--will be busy visiting the base to keep it in good shape. They'll keep the outside of the base from being overgrown with bio matter by scrubbing the view ports and doing everything they can to make sure the top side communications, life support and diesel generators are in solid enough shape to eventually support aquanauts, defined as those visitors who stay under and live in the habitat for at least a night.
When will missions resume? FIU says by summer the team could host short visits for education or outreach, but Tom Potts, the Director of Aquarius Reef Base, cautions that full-blown,week-long undersea science missions could take awhile. "I don't anticipate we'll run a full-blown saturation mission this year, as we need to establish the new shore base and hire a few more staff,” he says.
Dr. Jim Fourqurean, a FIU biology professor, will be overseeing the base's activities. He says that while NOAA's funding will allow them to keep the base as-is, they're talking with and thinking about working with private and public agencies like "NASA and the Navy and private underwater engineering companies and space agencies" to see who might use the unique base and help fund its operations. (NASA used the base for its NEEMO missions, famous for, among other things, being a great place to test zero-g mission scenarios like how they'd blow up an asteroid before it could collide with Earth.)
He added that FIU is an ideal home for Aquarius as they ramp up their "research, teaching and outreach activities in the Florida Keys." (Which is a rare and pleasant thing to hear since a lot of non-commercial ocean research funding seems to be shrinking.)
Like many oceanographic research facilities, access to Aquarius has been exclusive in the last century. But if things go right, Potts anticipates a modern upgrade to Aquarius that'll help justify its existence to those who aren't some of the few hundred or so aquanauts lucky enough to live under the sea so far. He says, "We will be seeking funding to turn Aquarius into a fully instrumented, high-tech observation post that beams detailed data on ocean health directly to the web. We also look forward to upgrading the existing communications systems so that it is easier to allow a virtual presence on the habitat by anyone with a fast internet connection."
As always, it depends on the funding.