A submerged laboratory off Key Largo will serve as home base for American and European astronauts training for the rigors of deep space exploration.
Astronauts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency are scheduled to spend 10 days inside the Aquarius Reef Base, which is operated 62 feet below the ocean’s surface by Florida International University marine biologists, beginning June 10.
And, while they’re down there, one of their main jobs will be planting coral reef nurseries, a conservation practice pioneered by the Keys-based Coral Restoration Foundation in 2007.
The astronauts will be trained by the CRF on land before embarking on their mission.
“The environment at Aquarius Reef Base is completely different from where we traditionally grow our corals,” Amelia Moura, CRF’s science program manager, said in a statement. “This makes it an exciting opportunity to further understand how different coral species and different genetic strains within certain species react to different environments, different fish communities and different light conditions.”
After the mission is complete, the corals will be monitored by FIU scientists, according to the CRF.
The exercise is also aimed at training the astronauts for performing tasks in a space environment, said Bill Todd, project leader for NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations 23 expedition.
“The close parallels of inner and outer space exploration will be clearly demonstrated during this undersea mission,” Todd said in a statement. “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. In the interior of Aquarius, aquanauts and astronauts will tackle an array of experiments and human research related to long duration space travel.”
The ultimate goal of the mission is to train astronauts for travel to the International Space Station and even future missions to the moon and Mars, according to NASA.
“Objectives for the crew include evaluating scenarios for using science instruments and tools on the lunar surface, such as tools and hardware for getting science core samples; using augmented reality to guide an untrained operator from module to module; and studies of body composition and sleep,” the press release states.
Leading the mission is the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti, an astronaut who was part of the International Space Station’s Explorations 42 and 43 from November 2014 to June 2015. NASA says Cristoforetti “spent 200 days living and working in the extreme environment of space, currently the longest spaceflight of a European.”
Joining her will be NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins, who joined NASA in 2017 and holds a doctorate in geology from UCLA.
Watkins and Cristoforetti will be conducting their mission with Shirley Pomponi, research professor at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute-Florida Atlantic University (and also a professor of marine biotechnology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and Csilla Ari D’Agostino, research assistant professor from the University of South Florida, who is also a manta ray researcher and head of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation.