NASA’s NEEMO: Bringing Space to the Deep

Geek Culture

The OpenROV (in blue) Moving Over Aquarius.The OpenROV (in blue) Moving Over Aquarius.

The OpenROV (in blue) Moving Over Aquarius. Image: OpenROV

The name “Nemo” automatically brings to mind visions of the deep for many people. From the infamous anti-hero captain in Jules Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea to the lovable lost clown fish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, the name has become linked to life in the ocean. For a dedicated team from a number of backgrounds, interests, and organizations, the name is linked to both the ocean and space exploration.

There is a project, coordinated by NASA, called the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO. I have spent the past week working in the NEEMO environment and it has been amazing. My work here was related to capturing part of the link NASA provides to monitoring the oceans along with the satellite program I am working on now called the Joint Polar Satellite System. I captured a great deal of incredible information and footage for my project but I want to take the time to educate our readers on NEEMO, the incredible work being done on the project, and the other amazing teams I was working alongside.

NEEMO is what NASA calls an Analog Mission. During an Analog Mission, a crew is put into a simulated mission under an environment simulating some of the conditions of a space mission while a Mission Control team works with the crew in a Mission Control Center, or MCC. The fact that this is an Analog Mission is an important distinction. There are a number of ways to test in conditions specifically analogous to spaceflight such as g-forces in a centrifuge or different pressure conditions in test chambers. The Analog Missions are important in that they are a simulation of the full end-to-end space mission. The crew is working for multiple days in an extreme environment and communicating with Mission Control in a way that is very similar to working on flying mission.

The Aquarius Reef Base during the NEEMO 14 Mission (Image: NASA)The Aquarius Reef Base during the NEEMO 14 Mission (Image: NASA)

The Aquarius Reef Base during the NEEMO 14 Mission Image: NASA

The NEEMO Analog Missions are centered around the Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. The Aquarius Reef Base is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The Aquarius Base is an 85-ton habitat that supports a crew of up to six Aquanauts. Aquarius sits in about 62 feet of water in a sandy section of Conch Reef in the protected Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The habitat is pressurized to over twice normal atmospheric pressure both to keep the Aquanauts equalized to the water pressure at that depth and to allow for a moon pool where the Aquanauts can enter and leave the habitat without airlocks or hatches. Remember The Abyss? It is kind of like that but at 62 feet. On the surface, there is a large buoy called the Life Support Buoy, or LSB, which provides power generation, air compressors, communications, and other support equipment. At the end of a stay on Aquarius, since the Aquanauts are saturated at the pressure of 2.5 atmospheres, they undergo an almost 16-hour decompression process to bring them safely back to normal atmospheric conditions.

The Aquarius Life Support Buoy & Support Ships (Image: Brian McLaughlin)The Aquarius Life Support Buoy & Support Ships (Image: Brian McLaughlin)

The Aquarius Life Support Buoy & Support Ships Image: Brian McLaughlin

When the NASA NEEMO team uses Aquarius for a mission they send a crew down consisting of astronauts and other personnel to work in the extreme environment and simulate a space mission. The extreme environment provides conditions where the crew lives in isolation and have to appropriately equip themselves for work outside the habitat. NEEMO places additional equipment around Aquarius to aid in the mission simulation. Back in Key Largo, a large, well-equipped trailer is brought in for the Mission Control end of the simulation. Called the Mobile Mission Control Center, or MMCC, the trailer provides an amazingly accurate Mission Control atmosphere. During mission operations, additional divers also go down to support different aspects of the mission, making for an amazing sight with the support divers and Aquanauts all working together in an well-choreographed dance.

NASA Mobile Mission Command Center NASA Mobile Mission Command Center

NASA Mobile Mission Command Center Image: Brian McLaughlin

The current mission is NEEMO 16 and runs from this past Monday till the end of next week. During NEEMO 16, the team is simulating a mission to land on an asteroid. They are practicing a number of techniques for moving around the asteroid environment, such as moving from workstation to workstation, testing tools for different uses, and other activities. The communications loop with the MMCC is delayed to simulate the communications lag due to the speed of light a mission will encounter working on an asteroid. What makes NEEMO such a great place to run tests described above is the ability to provide feedback on a particular tool or procedure to the surface team, make modifications, and try the modifications the next day. It is an amazing rapid prototyping environment that is like a Hackathon on the ocean floor.

I was invited to participate in NEEMO 16 by the Open NASA team. We all saw the opportunity to highlight other aspects of the work done at Aquarius and during NEEMO missions relating to ocean and reef health that is complemented by the work done by the weather monitoring satellites. The Open NASA team incorporates the following principles into the core NASA mission:

  • Increase Agency transparency and accountability to external stakeholders.
  • Enable citizen participation in NASA’s mission.
  • Improve internal NASA collaboration and innovation.
  • Encourage partnerships than can create economic opportunity.
  • Institutionalize Open Government philosophies and practices at NASA.

I first became involved with the Open NASA (@OpenNASA) team during the recent International Space Apps Challenge where I helped kick off the activities in Jakarta via Skype and coordinated Antarctica participation. The Open NASA team is truly a friend in NASA for the Maker, Open Source, and Open Hardware movement. They support and coordinate widely popular hackathons, summits, and other events and efforts such as the International Space Apps Challenge and Random Hacks of Kindness. The two Open NASA team members I have been working with, Nick Skytland and Chris Gerty, are also awesome geek dads. The NEEMO 16 participation with Open NASA is a direct result of the International Apps Competition. One of the teams at the San Francisco event was the OpenROV team.

The OpenROV (@OpenROV) team is developing an submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle and keeping the whole project in the Open Source/Open Hardware world and doing a great job of keeping the build cost to under $1,000. Up until this week, the OpenROV prototypes have only seen trials at limited depths and in freshwater. The Open NASA team provided the OpenROV team the opportunity to submerge and operate around the Aquarius habitat during NEEMO 16. Check out the picture below as a preview of the results and keep a weather eye on the OpenROV website for some big upcoming announcements. I’ve featured one of the OpenROV team members in a previous GeekDad post. I wrote about David Lang and his Zero to Maker series that ran on Make. I would say he is doing very well in his transition to a Maker.

An OpenROV fully operational with Aquarius in the background. (Image: OpenROV)An OpenROV fully operational with Aquarius in the background. (Image: OpenROV)

An OpenROV fully operational with Aquarius in the background. Image: OpenROV

What has been so amazing this week is to see all of the teams working together. NASA NEEMO, the Aquarius Reef Base team, Open NASA, OpenROV, Navy and Coast Guard Divers, a One World One Ocean film crew working with IMAX cameras, and two one-person mini-subs all working together to accomplish a series of objectives in a well orchestrated sequence. This is one of those places where you see the best of humanity and what we can do when we all work together. As I said before, the NEEMO 16 mission runs until the end of next week. I recommend strongly that you check it out via the many paths where the general public can gain insight to the mission. You can check out the NEEMO website, the Aquarius Reef Base website, either of the associated Twitter accounts (@NASA_NEEMO, @ReefBase), or follow the #NEEMO16 hashtag on Twitter. There are also live cameras of the operation available via the Aquarius Reef Base website or the Reef Base Vimeo feed.

It has been an honor to be a small part of NEEMO 16 and i will wear my mission patch with pride.

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