Hatches Close On Aquarius Lab, Possibly For The Last Time
July 23, 2012

Hatches Close On Aquarius Lab, Possibly For The Last Time

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Aquanauts could now officially be a thing of the past, as Sunday saw the doors of the undersea research lab Aquarius Reef Base close for the last time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) lab was established in 1986, and operated around the U.S. Virgin Islands for over two decades at 60 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Federal budget cuts have left the Aquarius lab without its $3 million annual funding, effectively ending its underwater mission this past weekend.

The lab, which resembles a mobile home from the inside and a coral reef from the outside, allows researchers to scuba dive for nine continuous hours a day on the reef. No breaks were needed in returning to the surface, and no decompressing, because they stay at the bottom of the ocean.

Scientists say they are able to accomplish in a week what might take months to do by having to take shorter dives from a boat.

Aquarius has helped collect year-round research for two decades, allowing scientists to create a continuous stream of data from one specific reef, showing how climate change has helped damage the fragile ecosystem in the ocean.

"The trend is not good. The good news is, we know why," Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at NOAA, told the Associated Press in a video chat Tuesday from Aquarius.

NASA has been using the underwater habitat for training astronauts to live and work in space. In June, a NASA team simulated a mission to visit an asteroid.

"Unfortunately, our budget environment is very, very challenging and we are unable to do all that we would like," NOAA spokesman David Miller told the Associated Press. "We hope that additional sources of funding can be found."

Mark Patterson, a marine science professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, builds underwater robots, but said that scientists are capable of doing what robots can't.

“A robot could never do this in a million years, even though I love robots to death,” Patterson told the Associated Press.

He has been researching corals, sponges, plankton and goliath grouper, and during his last week at Aquarius he brought electrode-tipped instruments to measure corals. Without the underwater lab, he will be having to transfer orals in limited dives from a boat to a lab on land.

“I´ll have to do my science in a very different way,” Patterson told the Associated Press.

Despite the grim outlook with Aquarius having no funding, NASA's director of the training mission at Aquarius, Marc Reagon, told the news agency that he is optimistic about other funding coming through, saying "it would be a shame to see it go away."

Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray´s One World One Ocean campaign documented the underwater lab and posted live updates in order to try and strike public interest, and possibly raise funds for Aquarius.

“What we´re hoping is that people will care about this national treasure and also (see) how useful it is to manage the coral reefs in the United States,” Patterson told the Associated Press from Aquarius.