Aquarius is an underwater laboratory and home to scientists for missions up to 10 days long, but to call Aquarius a home is like calling the space shuttle Discovery a mode of transportation. Aquarius is made to withstand the pressure of ocean depths to 120 feet deep. Presently, Aquarius is located in a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, at a depth of 63 feet. The laboratory is attached to a baseplate that positions the underwater habitat (underwater laboratories are also called habitats) about 13 feet off the bottom. This means that the working depth of those inside the laboratory is about 50 feet deep. Located inside the 81–ton, 43 x 20 x 16.5–foot underwater laboratory are all the comforts of home: six bunks, a shower and toilet, instant hot water, a microwave, trash compactor, and a refrigerator even air conditioning and computers linked back to shore by wireless telemetry! Using Aquarius as a base for research diving expeditions definitely has its advantages.
Would you like to come inside the Aquarius habitat? Then take our IPIX virtual tour.
The cost of operating Aquarius is between $1.3 and $1.5 million a year. This translates to an operating cost estimated at about $10,000 per day (total cost of program divided by the number of saturation days), which is a higher day rate than surface–based diving programs. However, a 10–day Aquarius mission would take more than 60 days if conducted using surface–based technology, and few scientists have the time to spend months in the field, when a 10–day Aquarius mission can be used to accomplish the same goals. This assumes that the work could even be conducted from the surface, which many times is not the case because Aquarius provides unique laboratory capabilities (not available using boats). Significantly, the conversion data from Aquarius to surface–based diving assumes an unreasonably rigorous (and risky) dive schedule and no weather delays. If expenses are compared on a per project basis, a 10–day Aquarius mission costs about $40,000 more than a 60–day surface–based program — assuming the work could even be conducted from the surface, which in many cases is not possible. Additionally, Aquarius provides significant media access and public outreach capabilities that are not possible in conventional dive operations, and while the program’s science mission is paramount these other activities are valuable too. Additional information about the cost of operating Aquarius is presented in: The Aquarius Underwater Laboratory: America’s “Inner Space” Station.
Aquarius missions typically last 10 days. We conduct shorter missions at the start of the year for training and to test systems. The longest missions in Aquarius are 14 days, but this doesn’t happen too often. We are talking about a special project next year that might last 30 days. Interestingly, and this relates to the technique of saturation diving that we support, once you are saturated it doesn't matter if you stay one day, a week, or a month — the decompression time remains the same.
A brief explanation of saturation diving is presented in the article: “How an Underwater Habitat Benefits Marine Science.” Also, take a look at the pressure lesson plan to learn more about saturation diving.
At the end of missions aquanauts decompress inside Aquarius, where pressure is slowly brought back to one atmosphere (or surface pressure) from the operating depth of about 50 feet — and it takes over 17 hours. Aquanauts then “lock–out” and swim to the surface. People sometimes think that Aquarius is brought to the surface during decompression, but it stays on the bottom; it’s the pressure inside Aquarius that is changed.
Inside the Aquarius underwater laboratory, three cameras are hooked up to an Axis 2400 video server (we have space for a total of four cameras but we only post images for three). The crew at mission control can connect directly to the video server via IP address and get extremely good video at about 20 fps, which they use to monitor the aquanauts. A Cron script utility, running on the video server, gives an FTP command, which sends a halfsize JPEG and a fullsize JPEG from cameras every 15 seconds to UNCW, who is hosting the video. An applet on the webpage then tells your browser to “refresh” every 15 seconds so that you get a new, still image as frequently as one is sent.
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