VOLUME 19 #2

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Art Trembanis underwater
Photo courtesy of UD/UC-Davis NEEMO 2011
Art Trembanis on a dive with the autonomous underwater vehicle

Underwater vehicles, astronauts and asteroids

RESEARCH | At NASA, sights are set on asteroid exploration, which is just as tricky as it sounds. An asteroid has little gravitational force, which rules out walking on one. Anchoring to the surface is a solution, but because an asteroid comprises so many different materials, even that is a challenge.

So how is the space agency planning for such a task? In May, it sent teams underwater to prepare for a simulated mission to a near-Earth asteroid in October. The effort, coordinated by NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, took place 3.5 miles off Key Largo, Fla., at the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory.

“An underwater habitat provides an environment where you have to consider life support, communication, food and supplies and near weightlessness, which is what the astronauts are going to encounter on this kind of object,” says Art Trembanis, assistant professor of geological sciences at UD.

Trembanis, Doug Miller, associate professor of oceanography, and collaborator Alex Forrest of the University of California–Davis were on hand during the project’s first planning phase May 1–5, though they weren’t in the underwater habitat as the astronauts will be for their simulated mission. They worked from a surface vessel to deploy UD’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which uses cameras, sonar sensors and other instruments to gather all types of vital underwater information.

Their goal was to provide baseline mapping of the area and to determine what the terrain looks like, what it is made of, the available resources and the environmental conditions. All that information will help the NASA experts planning the simulation mission make decisions such as what kinds of wetsuits are needed or where to place an obstacle the astronauts will use to practice their asteroid-walking skills.

“Our role was to gather as much information as we could,” Trembanis says, “and to maximize the potential for exploration.”

Over four days, the robot covered 62 miles and collected water quality parameters such as salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen and more than 12 hours of high-definition video and 85,000 images. Because the AUV is much more agile than the tethered robots previously used to scout the area around Aquarius, it was able to gather more information than ever before.

“Surface ships had a tough time because there’s a whole series of cables,” Trembanis says. “The AUV allowed us to get in there.”

The team collected the information with funding from NASA, but the data will have valuable ocean science uses as well, Trembanis says. For instance, he plans to compare them with similar data collected for a Sea Grant-funded project that studies habitats around reef systems in Delaware Bay.

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The endeavor also afforded some exceptional opportunities for UD students. Graduate students Jonathan Gutsche and Bryan Keller helped deploy the AUV on its missions in Florida, and graduating geology major Lyle De La Rosa helped process data and determine targets for exploration during the trip.

“I’m gaining some amazing tools and knowledge that not a lot of people have in my major,” he says.

Students back at UD also got in on the action, watching video and data from the site on the large screens of the Visualization Lab.

Article by Elizabeth Boyle

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