October 9th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Eric Lindstrom
Friday, 5 October 2012 — We got a call today from the Commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Sunita “Suni” Williams. Suni, who was calling while the ISS was passing over Eastern Russia, wanted to congratulate us on our SPURS expedition.
Sunita Williams, Commader of International Space Station.
Eric Lindstrom, Adam Seamans, and Ray Schmitt, during call with the ISS.
We had 30 minutes of wide-ranging conversation about life at sea and life in space. We talked about the beautiful sunrises and sunsets viewed from both Knorr and the space station. Suni has the added bonus of seeing the aurora from ISS and the green flash of the sun lasting for an extended period.
We talked about the naming of the new WHOI research vessel after astronaut Neil Armstrong, which will provide yet another link between space and oceanography for years to come. We talked about superstitions on ships and the ISS — no whistling on the ship seems to be a Navy tradition common to both our vessel and the ISS.
The call was a big boost to morale on the Knorr as we suffered through a day of windy and bumpy conditions inflicted by Tropical Storm Oscar. On the good side, we are finished with our primary science tasks and we are riding the wind and waves toward the end of mission in the Azores.
The talk with ISS also is symbolic of the many and growing links between the exploration of the solar system (outer space) and the exploration of the ocean (inner space). As the Physical Oceanography Program Manager at NASA Headquarters, I see the links every day. However, I suspect that, for starters, many of you were unaware that NASA had anything to do with exploring the ocean. So let me fill you in!
I think there are at least three categories of relationships between inner and outer space to tell you about – first is astronaut skills and training, second is the naming and use of spacecraft and ships as exploration and observation platforms, and third are the intersections in science, remote sensing, and robotics for exploration.
Astronaut Training and Skills
Astronauts must train to live and work in a weightless environment. That is quite difficult to find on Earth, but working under water provides a useful analogue because diving can simulate both weightlessness and working in pressure suits.
The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center is an enormous pool of water for training astronauts. The NBL contains full-sized mock-ups of the International Space Station modules and payloads.
The NOAA Aquarius Reef Base is an underwater habitat used by NASA on a regular basis for astronaut training.
Few humans posses the construction skills needed to build and maintain the International Space Station. To find qualified astronauts for that work, NASA looked to the deep-sea diving community for “the right stuff”.
Naming of Ships and Spacecraft
Naming spacecraft after ships of exploration (for example, the Discovery and Challenger) has been popular and it seems appropriate that oceanographic ships are named after explorers. The replacement for R/V Knorr was just announced and it will be named the R/V Neil Armstrong after the first astronaut to walk on the moon. Maybe this symbolizes a renewed decades-long commitment by NASA to seagoing exploration and discovery?
The space shuttle ushered in a new regular opportunity for astronauts to view and photograph the Earth and ocean. Similarly, oceanographers on ships can observe the same phenomena at sea level to provide in-depth views.
Science, Remote Sensing, and Robotics
NASA supports the development and use of technologies to explore remote hostile environments across the solar system. Many of these technologies are road tested on Earth in analogue environments, such as deserts, the Arctic, Antarctica, and deep ocean hydrothermal vents. Since we believe there are other oceans in the solar system to explore, like Europa, there is a growing interest in using the Earth’s ocean as a proving ground for remote sensing and robotic technology. This has been going on for more than 30 years.
In 2011, NASA launched the Aquarius mission to study variations in the surface salinity to the ocean. Aquarius senses the ocean at L-band (microwave emissions) in a frequency protected for radio astronomy. There are numerous galactic sources for L-band radiation and these have been well mapped by NASA astronomers. The fact that the radio astronomer’s map is reflected off the sea surface, makes for and interesting connection between the inner and outer space.
For years, oceanographers have been training astronauts for visual observation of the ocean and photography from space, and in turn the astronauts have produced many images of interesting oceanographic phenomena from above.
In the coming years, ISS will be home to a NASA Physical Oceanography/JPL-constructed instrument to measure winds over the ocean. It’s a follow-on from the QuikSCAT project of 1999 that is still flying today. The new project is known as Rapid Scat and is under development for the Columbus module on ISS.
So that’s a quick tour of some of the inner and outer space connections. The longer this oceanographer works at NASA, the more he discovers. It’s a quite fruitful relationship. It was great to have a Navy Captain in space talking to oceanographers at sea today. Suni William, best of luck on the rest of your mission on International Space Station – and no whistling!
Sunset on the Sargasso Sea.
October 3rd, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Eric Lindstrom
The bridge of the Research Vessel Knorr. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)
Almost everyone can imagine the bridge of a ship – from the movies, a tour of a ship, or maybe you are the master of your own vessel. It is the place where control of all ship operations is commanded. On the bridge of the Knorr, an officer and a seaman are always present and in full control of the vessel, for the safety of all aboard and effectiveness of the ship as a research platform. It’s amazing what they can do and the various skills that are required to command a research vessel.
The bridge and chart room house all the ways and means needed to safely navigate Knorr, maintain her stability, maneuver her on station, and to communicate with anyone as necessary. Like the dashboard of a (sophisticated) car, they have a display of key engineering functions and to operate the ship in both manual (i.e., you driving) and autopilot (car cruise control) modes.
One key function of the master that you may not know about is to complete calculations assessing the stability of the ship and to ballast her correctly as fuel is consumed or heavy scientific gear is deployed. Seawater ballast tanks are available to compensate for changing conditions (Knorr uses between 1,800 and 3,800 gallons of fuel per day).
There is an overarching sense of situational awareness that permeates life on the bridge of any research vessel. The captain and the mates are always alert of changing conditions like weather, location, time, ship traffic, and science plans. With the rhythm of the ship, they are also keenly attuned to watch changes, meals, rest periods, and fresh coffee brewing. Also, there is all the important watch for fish. The chief engineer must be informed 24/7 of any sighting. We all need our protein…
That leaves the oceanographers to focus on the science bits – like what the tiny variations of salinity are in the top 3,000 feet of the ocean! That’s sweet. The bridge looks after us, we look after the ocean, and everyone is, well… working. Not much else to do out here.
Knorr has amazing capability to stay on station. In gentle sea conditions, it’s quite possible to stay on location to within a few feet. The officer on watch can set the ship to keep position, so their attention can be shifted to observing deck operations further aft on the ship.
The track of the Knorr while on station. The orange circles have radii of 4 feet and 8 feet.
The view from the starboard bridge station aft.
Captain Adam Seamans has been a Master of Knorr since 2008. He started with Whoods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as an Able Seaman in 2000, where one of his first duties was to clean a science cabin after a head overflowed. My, how times have changed! Now he commands the 22-member crew of Knorr and navigates her to all corners of the globe. Maybe he still has to deal with a lot of crumby jobs, but they are mostly of the cleaner variety!
Captain Adam Seamans holding the Knorr’s heading box, which contains three wooden blocks with ten digits inscribed in each. One can set the heading of the ship 0-360 degrees and place this in front of the seaman steering the ship’s course. For the photo, the heading is set at 279 – the length of Knorr in feet.
The Knorr has enormous capability for communication – via satellite phone or internet or radio. In close quarters with foreign vessels, Knorr can communicate the old-fashioned way via flags. Sequences of brightly colored flags have universal meanings to mariners.
The Knorr’s signal flags box.
Finally, I thought I would call your attention to training. All the officers aboard Knorr have great experience and through my decades of oceanography, I have found maritime officers always passing their knowledge and experience forward to others. Teaching and sharing, honestly, what a great concept! It makes for safer seas.
On this voyage we have a learner, a cadet named Anna, from Sweden. She is just 18 and approached a WHOI captain about being a cadet aboard one of their vessels. Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for! Anna has been working all the jobs on the ship for our expedition. Just today, she was driving a winch by herself for the first time, looking happy and proud! Her initiative and hard-working nature are an example for all of us. Sometimes the teachers become the students… Anna, Bravo Zulu!
Cadet Anna drives the CTD winch.
September 25th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Eric Lindstrom
The proud R/V Knorr engineering staff in the ship’s control room.
The Research Vessel Knorr is a fantastically capable oceanographic research vessel. She has traveled over 2 million miles and explored all the major oceans in her around 40 years of service.
As a visiting oceanography research crew, we have our space on the ship, for which we have free run. We are mostly in the main labs, on deck, or in the mess (getting fed very well indeed!) Much of the ship is off-limits to personnel other than the crew. I asked for a tour so I could give you a quick view of some “hidden” portions of the ship that make everything work. The daily routine is for the scientists to request that the ship, with her propulsion, station-keeping, cranes, winches, and capstans, to go here, stop there, stay still, lift this, pick up that… and so on, with only vague appreciation of the engineering feats behind these daily miracles.
I was privileged to get a tour of Knorr’s engineering space from the Chief Engineer Steve Walsh. He has been with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and aboard the Knorr for many years and participated in the vessel’s complete refit in 1991.
In 1991, the ship was basically cut in two pieces and 34 feet were added to her mid-section. The new engine room was placed in the new section and the space freed up in the after section (the old engine room) is now used as a workshop, welding room, and scientific cargo space.
Knorr’s machine and welding shop.
Knorr still has the old engine order telegraph connected to the bridge.
At the noisy heart of the ship are the engines (3500 Series Caterpillar). These run the four generators that supply 600V energy for all the ship’s electrical needs (which are many). The voltage is stepped down for various different purposes to 480V, 220V, and 120V (like in your house). The generators drive electric motors for primary propulsion, thrusters, and supply power for air conditioning, refrigeration, cranes, winches, lighting, computing, navigation and the coffee machine. According to Steve the most critical elements by far are the air conditioning and the coffee machine. OK, he’s half-joking…but I know he is serious about the coffee machine!
One of the electric motors for propulsion.
Upper deck crane on R/V Knorr.
It seems to me like the Knorr is, in some ways, like my all-electric home back in Maryland. When the power goes out, it’s a hollow, dark, cold shell of a place. Except on Knorr, we have the power company living in the basement using diesel engines to run the generators to keep our lights on. And unlike my house, the Knorr can also get up and go wherever oceanography takes her and use a crane to pick up the garage and car (or 10,000-lb mooring anchors) to go along for the trip. Knorr has all the comforts of home, work, and play for our 33 days at sea. They are all in one awesome package. All powered by home-grown, engineer-maintained, electricity.
Knorr Chief Engineer Steve Walsh enjoys a cup of coffee.
September 7th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Eric Lindstrom
Cloudy skies over the Atlantic, with Hurricane Leslie in the distance.
We knew when we left Woods Hole yesterday that we had two hurricanes (Leslie and Michael) standing between us and our study site, far southeast of Woods Hole in the mid-Atlantic. How Captain Adam of the Knorr chooses to deal with this over the next days is a study in weather and ocean forecasting – and calculated risks. We considered at least three options: delay departure until the coast is clear, make a significant departure to the cruise track (sail far south, then east), or leave on time but travel quickly to the east and then south to miss the worst of the hurricane weather.
The last option is what we are doing. We abandoned plans to do test stations and do science training for a few days so we can make hast to the east, to the east side of Leslie’s track. Then we can make our way south and around Michael. Tom Farrar and Fred Bingham of the SPURS science team have provided the bridge with Gulf Stream analyses that we hope will help us take best advantage of ocean currents in our race eastward. We could easily have found ourselves in an eddy that would hinder our progress, and no one wants that with bad weather coming toward us! It was a fabulous start to the voyage to have the crew of the Knorr and the SPURS team working so closely on the strategy to both keep us safe and on schedule.
It’s worth mentioning too that satellite data and the shore-based team play a crucial role in our cruise planning. Zhinjin Li and Michelle Gierach at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab have been feeding us the latest satellite images from the Atlantic so we can better understand the wind, waves, and currents in our path. We rely on these contributions because it is difficult to surf the web from sea – we have Internet access, but it can be quite slow.
Today we feel the enormous forces of the tropical storms on the western Atlantic. There is a good swell running – speaking clearly of some strong wind at a distance. Some aboard are feeling seasick, but the mess is still full of hearty eaters and smiling faces!
SPURS scientist Fred Bingham goes through safety training.
One of the things you notice in these conditions are all the items that can shake, rattle, squeak, groan, or otherwise move and make noise. I have been up and down in my cabin a number of times during the night to silence rattling cupboard doors, toppling books, sliding glasses – it’s almost an endless battle. At sea you don’t just put something down – you secure something, wedge something, pad something, or it becomes something broken, lost, dangerous or just plain noisy! Sometimes one even has to wedge oneself in a place and just stop moving around! All of us have greater appreciation than most for the stability of land and the silence that stability brings. When things are shipshape, all is secure and in its place. We are living shipshape today.