MIAMI – Two astronauts this week are preparing off the coast of Florida for the “hostile conditions” of future missions to the Moon and Mars, sowing coral on the ocean bottom to help save the Earth’s threatened reefs.
“We’re ready to go live and work on the ocean floor!” wrote Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency who commands the mission 19 meters (62 feet) beneath the ocean surface near Key Largo, on her Twitter account.
The latest edition of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) brings together astronauts and “a land-based support team” from the US and European space agencies, along with environmental experts who will work until June 20 on tests for long-duration space missions.
One of their tasks is linked to the construction and installation of “coral trees” near the Aquarius Reef Base, an underwater preserve that Florida International University has about 10 km (6 miles) off the coast of Key Largo.
“In the interior of Aquarius, aquanauts and astronauts will tackle an array of experiments and human research related to long duration space travel,” said Bill Todd, the head of the NEEMO 23 project, in a statement.
Cristoforetti is being accompanied by NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins and marine researchers Shirley Pomponi and Csilla Ari D’Agostino, as well as other habitat specialists.
“In many ways, Aquarius functions like the Space Station, with set procedures, roles and tight timelines,” said Cristoforetti at the start of the mission.
During their mission, the astronauts will carry out dexterity tasks similar to those needed to explore the surfaces of other planets while they are helping to save the coral, the Coral Restoration Foundation, a non-governmental organization participating in NEEMO 23, said.
“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,” said Todd.
During their mission, the astronauts will live and work underwater along with marine scientists to train themselves for spaceflight and other objectives linked with space missions, such as stays aboard the International Space Station and future missions to the Moon and Mars.
“It doesn’t happen every day that you get to live 10 days underwater where you have this incredibly rich marine flora and fauna,” said Cristoforetti.
The “coral trees” were developed by the CRF and are now being used by coral restoration groups all over the world to foster rapid growth of large quantities of coral.
A coral tree is a structure made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) attached to the ocean bed and outfitted with floats on its upper part, to which up to 100 coral fragments about the size of a finger can be attached to grow.
The coral grows and reproduces sexually by spawning, but it also reproduces asexually by “fragmentation,” when – under favorable conditions – a branch breaks off and falls onto the reef whereupon it can join with the reef and begin to grow into a new colony.
This second process is the one being used by the CRF, which already has seven nurseries in Florida that include up to 11 coral species.
Sowing the corals in deep water poses another challenge for environmentalists, said Amelia Moura, the director of the CRF’s scientific program.
Moura said that the environment at the Aquarius base is “completely different” from the sites where coral is traditionally cultivated.
“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,” she said.
When NEEMO 23 is concluded, FIU will take charge of the new nursery and will study the young coral and monitor the nutrients and herbivores at the Aquarius base site.