June 19, 2019

ISLAMORADA — Just slightly behind schedule, the Aquarius Reef Base reopened for business June 13.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation 23 team of four women swam down to the world’s only functioning undersea laboratory last Thursday to begin a nine-day mission that simulates conditions in a space flight.

The four women taking part in a NASA underwater mission off the Upper Keys include, from left, Florida Atlantic University research professor Shirley Pomponi, NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins, team leader Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, and Csilla Ari D’Agostino, a manta ray researcher and assistant professor at the University of South Florida.

While there, the crew conducts experiments on physiological and psychological stress, tests equipment suitable for space and makes time for planting new corals in the closed research waters, 62 feet down at Conch Reef.

“The close parallels of inner and outer space exploration will be clearly demonstrated during this undersea mission,” NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd said in a NASA report. “The daily seafloor traverses, or extravehicular activities in space jargon, are jam-packed with technology and operations concept testing, as well as complex marine science.”

NASA’s expedition marks the return of Aquarius missions after Hurricane Irma in September 2017 damaged the large Life Support Buoy that holds generators, air compressors and communications gear.

The 43-foot-long main habitat, now owned and operated by Florida International University in Miami, largely escaped significant damage but some facilities on the sea floor were swept away in the powerful storm.

NEEMO 23 encountered something of a countdown delay, starting three days later than originally scheduled while FIU technicians made certain all systems in the habitat were functioning properly.

A NEEMO 23 aquanaut enters the water at Conch Reef for the start of a nine-day mission at the Aquarius Reef Base, now the world’s only operational underwater laboratory.

The NASA team, headed by Italian European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (200 days in space aboard the International Space Station), got the signal to dive shortly after noon Thursday.

The NEEMO 23 crew includes NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins; Shirley Pomponi, marine research professor Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; and Csilla Ari D’Agostino, research assistant professor at the University of South Florida and a manta ray researcher.

Two Aquarius technicians also submerged with the NASA team for the duration of the mission.

As part of subsea assignments, the crew planned to install coral nursery trees near Aquarius for a research project in the FIU Medina Aquarius Program. Two species of endangered coral will be monitored by university staff for four years to study “effects of nearby fish communities on the composition, function and health of the corals and their interactions with assemblages of microorganisms and algae in the area.”

After working on the bottom, the team will undergo lengthy decompression required after saturation dives while inside the 81-ton habitat. They are expected to surface Friday or Saturday.

Live streaming video feeds are on the website, aquarius.fiu.edu/news-and-events/watch-live. Also see nasa.gov/mission_pages/NEEMO.