Underwater Rover MRAJE Image 9
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Underwater Rover M'RAJE (Image 9)

June 23, 2010
Underwater Rover M'RAJE (Image 9) One of rover M'RAJE's final "flights" was in the shallow waters off Cape Evans. This is the location of a historic hut used by Robert F. Scott in the early 20th century during the "heroic age" of Antarctic exploration. The site is in the shadow of 14,000-foot Mt. Erebus, the world's southernmost active volcano. M'RAJE is an underwater, camera-equipped "rover" developed by two high school seniors from Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, Calif. The two developed the rover as part of the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center ROV Design competition in 2005. [Image 9 in a series of 9. Back to Image 1.] More about this Image In Antarctica, where the remote location means shipping and assembly of scientific instruments can cost millions of dollars, a relatively meager $5,000 investment has returned a wealth of experience for students at a California High School and the research team with whom they are working at McMurdo Station, the National Science Foundation's logistics hub in Antarctica. Working with graduate students and technicians from the lab of marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Ryan Garner and Amanda Wilson, two female graduates of Cabrillo High School in Lompoc, Calif. built an underwater, camera-equipped "rover" that appears to be able to meet the challenges of the harshest environments on Earth. The submersible rig--called M'RAJE (pronounced "mirage")--is providing Hofmann and her team with an extra set of eyes to observe fish in their natural environments in water frequently covered by many meters of ice. Hofmann studies the environmental genomics of Antarctic fishes and their response to variations in water temperatures, such as might occur in a climate change scenario. She also takes very seriously the NSF priority of melding research and education. Working closely with graduate students Jessica Dutton, Mackenzie Zippay and Elizabeth Hoaglund in Hofmann's lab, Garner and Wilson--both high school seniors at Cabrillo at the time--turned their design of M'RAJE into a workable prototype. "I really like how Gretchen found these girls and emphasized the 'women in science' dimension of the project," noted Dutton, who acted as a liaison between Hofmann's laboratory and the rover team. As juniors, both Garner and Wilson were members of a team at Cabrillo that competed and placed highly in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center ROV design competition in 2005. Working with Ali Whitmer, the director of education at UCSB's Marine Science Institute and Robert Ranard and Shirley Pillus who coached the winning 2005 team, Hofmann encouraged Garner and Wilson to design a rover that was better adapted to Polar waters. "We wanted it to be specifically designed to do research in Antarctica," said Dutton. "We know the design would have to take into account things like how big a hole we are able to drill in the ice" to provide access to the ocean. Although scuba divers usually assist Hofmann's team in scouting out the underwater landscape, a successful rover design would compliment the work that human divers can do. The rover, for example, has a maximum tether length of 100 feet, which allows it to operate at the outer limits of safe diving. "We've never really been able, ourselves, to look at the habitat down there," said Dutton. "But we can take a rover out as a team and operate it independently." M'RAJE made roughly ten successful dives this Antarctic research season, between October and December 2006. (Date of Image: 2006)

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