Tomorrow I'll get on a plane bound for Guam where I'll rendezvous with the NOAA Okeanos Explorer and catch a ride back to Hawaii on the ship. The trans-Pacific journey will last 14 days, during which time my job will be to help map the seafloor. We will travel a 6100 km (3800 mi) great circle path from Guam to Oahu, crossing the Mariana Trench, the abyssal plain, seamounts and ridge systems. In the process, I'll experience life on the vessel firsthand and report on it here on my blog.
|Click for a wider view. You can follow the actual position of the ship in real time here or here.|
My biggest duty during the EX1005 transit cruise between Guam and Hawaii will be to collect and review high qualify multibeam sonar data as a one of six watchstanders working shifts around the clock to ensure continuous 24x7 mapping along the route. Two watchstanders will be on duty at all times to cover three 8-hour shifts per day. I am well-acquainted with watchstanding because that is what I do every week at the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The photo below shows the control room where I'll be working; there is a good video illustrating how the mapping system works here.
In addition to mapping, the other major activity of this mission will be a continous plankton recorder (CPR) survey conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The Okeanos Explorer ("EX" for short) will tow the CPR device, which collects phytoplankton and zooplankton samples. This will allow the NMFS to generate reasonable estimates of species occurrence in the upper 10 meters of the water column along the cruise track.
"Understanding what lies beneath the waves enables good stewardship. And healthy oceans enable strong citizens and strong economies." -- NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco
The Indonesian mission was also the EX's first wide scale deployment of the ship's telepresence system, which utilizes a powerful V-SAT satellite antenna to broadcast onboard video, images, and other data in real-time to "Exploration Command Centers" (ECC) where researchers, students, and the media can interact live with the crew at sea. The telepresence strategy allows a wider array of people to partipate, and in fact most scientists work remotely from shore rather than in person aboard the ship. The flagship ECC is the University of Rhode Island's Inner Space Center. Other centers are in Seattle, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Jakarta.
I can't help but wonder why NASA doesn't employ a similar distributed telepresence strategy to engage more "participatory exploration" during its missions. In fact, one thing that fascinated me about the EX when I first toured it earlier this year was its parallels to space exploration. It is America's only ship dedicated to systematically exploring the 95% of the ocean that humans have never seen - all in the name of discovery and advancement of knowledge. I liken the EX's exploration philosophy to planetary exploration: First we send a probe to do initial reconnaissance and mapping. After scientists review the data and learn more about the planet, they design followup missions with more targeted research objectives. That's what the EX is doing in the Earth's oceans.
The video gives a really nice overview of the Okeanos Explorer in more detail.