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Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog, Part 5

Posted on July 12th, 2010 by Stanley Love

What a week it has been!  Today is the last of my six full days here at Pavilion Lake, and it feels like we’ve done a month’s worth of work.  Days begin with breakfast at 7 am and a team meeting at 7:30, and conclude with science debriefs that often end at 10 or 11 pm.  The pace is not quite as fast and relentless as a Shuttle flight…but it’s close.  It’s one more way in which Pavilion Lake is a good analog for an actual space flight.  (Differences include the excellent food and, on the rare occasions when time permits, being able to go fo a long jog with fresh air and lovely mountain scenery!)

Stan preparing for flight in DeepWorker

With two more “flights” in the Deepworker submarine under my belt since last I wrote, I’ve gotten a lot more familiar with the machine.  Although the miniature submarine looks nothing like a space suit, there are a lot of similarities.  And someday, when humans visit near-Earth asteroids or other objects with very low surface gravity, I expect they’ll do their spacewalks in something that looks a lot more like a Deepworker than a traditional person-shaped space suit. Here’s why.  A small asteroid has such weak gravity that even the slightest nudge with a hand or foot would send a spacewalking astronaut soaring high above the surface, and it might take hours to come back down.  A stronger shove might send an astronaut away at a speed higher than the escape velocity, in which case gravity would not bring them back ever!  Not so good.  On the International Space Station, which of course has no noticeable gravity of its own, astronauts keep from floating away by holding on to special handrails.  Asteroid do not come equipped with handrails.  They do have rough surfaces which might provide hand- and foot-holds, but unfortunately most asteroids are not solid blocks of material.  Instead they are “rubble piles,” flying clumps of sand, gravel, and boulders held together not by material strength, but by their own weak self-gravity.  So if you were moving hand-over-hand across the surface of the asteroid and accidentally pushed yourself off on a suborbital trajectory, you could grab onto a rock to keep yourself down–and the rock would simply come away with you! The practical result is that hands and feet are probably not the best way to move around an asteroid.  Better might be a suit with tiny thrusters that you could use to maneuver yourself around the landscape.  But if you’re not using your hands and feet to move around like a person climbing a tree, there’s no need to enclose them in a flexible suit.  Instead, you could keep them inside a hard pressure shell where they could be used to control thrusters, manipulators, and onboard systems.  Such an arrangement might look a lot like a Deepworker.  As a side benefit, the operator might be a bit more comfortable than in a traditional space suit.

Stan and DeepWorker 7.

Our underwater work here at Pavilion Lake ends this afternoon.  I’ll be the pilot for one of the last two “flights.”  The flight planner, Dr. “Mars” Marinova (who was just recently awarded her Ph.D. from the Geological and Planetary Sciences division at Caltech, where I worked as a postdoc more years ago than I care to admit), set up an especially interesting flight plan for me.  I’ll visit one of the “deep mounds,” outcroppings of microbialites growing on isolated boulders on the otherwise rather flat and monotonous central floor of the lake.  Then I’ll head off to do some vertical transects along the western shore.  These transects begin in deep water, then move upslope through the depth zone where the microbialite population is richest.  As I fly the transects I’ll record video of what I see from the submarine, and keep a running monologue (also recorded on board) of my observations.  It should be a lot of fun…and I’m sure I’ll miss piloting the submarines when the field season ends.
This wraps up Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog.  If I’m fortunate enough to be able to participate here next field season and spend more quality time underwater, I’ll be sure to reactivate the blog.

Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog, Part 4

Posted on July 4th, 2010 by Stanley Love

Stan focused during the evening pilots meeting. Photo: Henry Bortman

It’s been a while since the last installment of Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog, for the simple reason that Dr. Love has not recently been underwater…until today. It has been three months since the blustery day in Vancouver when Chris Hadfield and I completed our basic training in the Deepworker submarine. Now it’s time for us to field-test that training.

Compared with Vancouver, Pavilion Lake is remote, dry, and elevated. The nearest airport is Kamloops, a 2-hour drive to the east. There are a few vacation houses clustered along the lakeshore. A sparse pine and fir forest climbs the steep walls of the canyon that contains the lake. The elevation here is about 2,500 feet (800 metres) above sea level.

Despite the elevation and distance from the sea, our friends Deepworker 6 and 7 were here waiting when I arrived yesterday evening. After breakfast I joined the team in once of the chase boats to observe a submarine mission in Pavilion Lake as preparation for the one I would fly myself in the afternoon. From the perspective of a topside observer with no assigned duties, it was pretty sweet: sit in the boat, eat a snack, chat with the guys, eat another snack, admire the mountain scenery, and then eat lunch. Whew! Tough work, but somebody’s got to do it.

Stan in DeepWorker, ready for his flight. Photo: Henry Bortman

After the morning flight however, it was my turn for the hotseat. After a very quick dive brief I found myself back in the none-too-roomy cockpit of Deepworker 6 reminding myself to: keep clear of the bottom, don’t stir up sediment, make observations on the size, spacing, texture, and morphology of microbialites, zoom the video camera to provide both big-picture context and detailed views of interesting features, describe the lake bottom substrate, observe which of the four main species of lake algae were present, keep track of my course and heading to maintain a tight pattern with the video camera so that the images could be stitched together to produce a large-scale map, mention any visible groundwater influx, maintain a constant monologue of what I was seeing so the voice recorder would capture it, estimate the slope of the lake bottom….oh, and drive the submarine according to the instructions from topside! Of all those simultaneous tasks I think I might have managed to do about three.

Although the task loading was significant for refresher dive, the view from the sub more than made up for it. Back in Vancouver harbor, the water was so murky that the first indication that one was approaching an obstacle was often a sharp bump. There was little sea life visible. The flying was strictly IFR, the abbreviation pilots use for flying in clouds where there is no possibility of seeing the ground or anything else. Here, though, the water is beautiful: clear with a slight turquoise tint. With a fine view of the bottom of the lake from as much as 15 or 20 feet above it, it’s a pleasure to move the foot pedals and see the submarine respond and move around. And on my dive this afternoon there were indeed plenty of microbialites to be seen. In the greater depths, say 80 feet, tiny towers poke up out of the white carbonate “snow” that covers much of the lake bottom, looking for all the world like the petrified siphons of clams. As I drove upward into shallower water, I saw structures like big coral heads, up to two or three feet across, covered with small flutes and spires. At still shallower depths, fibrous green algae took over and there were no more microbialites. One of the things we hope to learn with this research is what factors control the sizes and shapes of the microbialites, and why they change so much with the depth of the water.

My dive lasted about three hours and included four or five “transects” from the lake’s deep floor up to the shallows and then back down. I had the video recorders running the entire time and tried to keep a good narrative of what I was seeing. Some time in the next day or so the science team will review the data I brought back, and I’ll find out whether I brought back anything especially interesting or useful. And tomorrow I’ll be back in the sub for my second dive of the season! I’ll write about that when I next have the opportunity.


Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog – Submarine Training: Day 3

Posted on April 6th, 2010 by Stanley Love

This morning the towers of downtown Vancouver, across Burrard Inlet from our hotel, were blurred with a grey veil of rain. No trouble, I thought. It rained yesterday and we got plenty of training done regardless. Rain is not really a threat to a submarine! But, crucially, the big rotating sign in the shape of a “Q” that marked the Lonsdale Quay marketplace was behaving oddly. Every once in a while its steady turning would stall, or even reverse for a few seconds.

The magnitude of the problem didn’t become apparent until we got out to the marine lab. The Canadian flag at the front of the building snapped madly and strained at its line. The sea was dark grey and spangled with whitecaps. Two-foot seas washed over the float where the support skiff was moored and interfered with each other near shore to make a high, sharp, chaotic chop. Sailboats in ones and twos, aborting cruise plans for the Easter weekend, struggled in the direction of the harbor under bare poles, pitching and plunging. Not a pretty day for nautical endeavors. (We found out later that it was the strongest windstorm in several years, with winds reaching 100 km/h. It dropped trees on power lines, cutting electricity to over 100,000 customers, and forced cancellation of some ferry service).

Our instructors didn’t like the look of things either. “Do you get seasick easily?” one of them asked me. Jeff was frowning at the idea of putting a sub under tow in the present sea state, if it should have a mechanical problem. For about an hour we stood around in our full raingear, watching the weather for signs of improvement. Our patience was not rewarded. If anything, it seemed to be getting worse–visibility dropping, sleet beginning to mix in with the rain. We began discussing how much submarine training we might be able to accomplish without having to court nausea and disaster by putting the vehicles in the water.

What we settled on was to call our sonar and manipulator work of the previous day sufficient and to devote our time today to the one system on the sub that we hadn’t touched yet: the video camera and recorder. It emerged that the video system works pretty much the same on land and in the water. Chris and I took turns sitting in DeepWorker #7, hatch closed to keep the rain out of the cockpit but resting securely on dry land, and working through the video controls. This was quickly done. Then we headed for the warmth and dryness of the lab for coffee and “Timbits” (evidently the Canadian word for donut holes). We had a relaxed discussion of all we’d learned. After that we exchanged a final round of thank-yous and handshakes, called our submarine driver certification complete, and parted company.

Thus ends Dr. Love’s underwater blog for now. It was a wonderful treat to drive the Deep Worker, and a much appreciated privilege to be allowed to do so, especially in the company of such excellent teachers and fellow students. For me this training trip was also a satisfying visit to the Pacific Coast. I was raised in Western Oregon, and any day when I get to see clouds caught in tall trees is a good one! The blog will resume this summer in a higher and less rainy environment, when I meet the DeepWorker submersible again for the Real Deal: the field season at Pavilion Lake.


Dr. Love’s underwater blog – Submarine Training – Day 2

Posted on April 5th, 2010 by Stanley Love

The second day of sub training for Chris Hadfield and myself started out cold, grey, and blustery. On the drive out to the Canadian government fisheries research lab where we were conducting our training, I could see a fresh dusting of snow on the trees not very far up the mountains north of Vancouver. It must have fallen overnight. At sea level there was only rain, but there was a strong breeze from the southeast just beginning to raise a small swell and a few whitecaps out on the bay.

The first half of the training day was a walkthrough of emergency procedures with instructor Jeff Heaton, in the warmth and comfort of a small upstairs conference room at the lab. Jeff jokingly refers to this part of training as the “we’re all gonna die” lecture. Like a spacecraft, a submarine is a totally enclosed micro-environment surrounded by conditions that won’t support human life. In either type of vehicle, the most serious situations are those that interfere with life support functions. It is these cases that drive the need for step-by-step checklists to follow when things go wrong.

The designers of the DeepWorker understood the risks of operating underwater and built a very safe vehicle. The sub has multiple independent sources of breathing gas, and even a way to use the pilot’s own lungpower to operate the carbon dioxide scrubbers if there should be a problem with the electrically-driven fans. The sub can return to the surface via any one of three different methods even after a total loss of its electric thrusters. The only hazard that can’t be solved through design is getting stuck or entangled so that the sub can’t get back to the surface. The pilot has to rely on his or her own good judgment to avid that scenario.

After lunch, Chris and I climbed into our trusty submarines for an afternoon of practical work. Fortunately the wind had calmed down and the sea state remained unchallenging. We moved away from the dock, and descended to the bottom of the bay. Jeff talked us through a few emergency drills, step by step. We tried swapping to backup electrical power, using a strap-on mask to breathe through the CO2 scrubbers with the fans powered off, switching to an alternate oxygen supply, ascending to the surface using only the compressed-air ballast tank, and reacting to an imaginary fire in the cockpit. All of those exercises went smoothly.

For the next phase of the lesson, Chris and I spent some time trying to locate two sonar targets out in the bay. The morning’s wave action had stirred up the sediment so that the visibility was even worse than the day before. Jeff would give us a bearing and range to the target, and we’d stare at our sonar screens and try to determine which smeary, shifting blob of color was the sonar target. This was quite tough. Twice we homed in on each other’s submarine without intending to. Chris found a piece of PVC pipe. I was stalking a promising sonar target when it suddenly materialized out of the green gloom a meter in front of me: a huge, dark, towering mass festooned with waving snaky growths. What the heck?! Something out of an H. P. Lovecraft story? No, just an old wooden piling covered with foot-long tube worms. OK, there was some of the sea life I had wanted to observe.

Leaving the piling, I did have some success (with a lot of help from the surface) finding the two sonar targets and using my robot arm to grab them, pick them up, and move them to new locations. It feels like quite an accomplishment to find anything in such low visibility.

By the time the day ended, I’d completed a three-hour dive and was feeling very comfortable in the sub. I felt like I had a good grasp of the systems, and could get the machine to do what I wanted without undue effort. It’s a pleasant feeling.

Tomorrow we expect another half day in the sub, after which we’ll be certified drivers, ready to ply the calm, clear waters of Pavilion Lake!


Dr. Love’s Underwater Blog

Posted on March 31st, 2010 by Stanley Love

About a year ago, I heard about the Pavilion Lake Research Project, which investigates weird microbial growths in a lake in British Columbia. It sounded like a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved. Then, about ten days ago, I got a call from someone who saw that I’d volunteered for the Desert RATS expedition later this year. He wondered whether I’d also be interested in “something even cooler than NEEMO, if not quite as cool as space flight.” I said, “Is it as cool as Pavilion Lake?”

Turned out it was Pavilion Lake. Hooray! So I threw a bunch of wool socks, fleece shirts, and Gore-Tex into a suitcase (I lived in Seattle for six years, and have some idea of what kind of weather to expect up here in March) and flew on up to Vancouver for a very quick introduction to the “whos” and “whats” of Pavilion Lake.

For me, the most important of the “whats” will be the DeepWorker submersible, the miniature submarine that I’ll be piloting to explore the lake this summer. The DeepWorker was developed by Nuytco, the same company that built the famous “Newt Suit” diving apparatus. DeepWorker is just big enough to hold one pilot, some ancillary electronics, and some life support and survival gear. Attached to the outside are four thrusters controlled by foot pedals inside, the batteries that power the whole craft, and the compressed-gas tanks. There’s also a small hydraulic manipulator that looks like a miniature version of the robot arms we use on the Space Shuttle and Space Station.

Today was the first day of DeepWorker school. The students are myself and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He has had some past exposure to submarines, but I know nothing about them, so this is all new to me! But no matter. After a quick but thorough briefing by Jeff Heaton, I climbed into DeepWorker #7. Jeff ran me through some system checks and we lowered the clear bubble hatch. The crane picked me up, swung me out over the water, and lowered me into it, all in not much more time that it takes to write it all down.

It’s strange to sit, totally secure and dry, bobbing in the sea with the waterline right at eye level. Strange, but not at all uncomfortable. The sub moved only sightly in the small waves we had with today’s fair weather. Once I’d had a chance to get used to the feeling of being in the water, Jeff talked me through some basic surface maneuvers, using the foot pedals to control the thrusters. Turn right and left, move forward and backward, follow a compass heading. All that went fine. Then it was time to flood the ballast tank and start working underwater. No problem: I moved the valve, a lot of bubbles came up from the right side of the sub as the tank filled, and the waterline crept up the clear dome and then closed over my head. I had wondered ahead of time how that would feel, and was pleasantly surprised that the sense of overwhelming coolness overrode any apprehension about being underwater.

One of the things I had looked forward to on this trip was seeing the undersea life of Puget Sound up close. Sadly, it was not to be–the water was very murky, making it hard to see anything beyond the snout of the sub. So I didn’t see much marine life–Nor, during later maneuvering, did I see one of the nearby dock pilings until after I’d felt a bump!

The first dive was short and sweet. If seemed as if only a few minutes had passed when Jeff asked me to resurface for lunch. We all enjoyed a nice meal in the sunshine (unusual for this place and season). Chris and I chatted a bit with some folks from the local and national media, then prepared for the next dive of the day.

The second sortie cemented the lessons of the first. It also added some basic sonar navigation work and exercised the automatic depth-holding function. All very cool. Again, the time seemed to fly by, and all too soon they were hoisting us out of the water.

In all, it was a great day. The sub is a marvel, the instruction was topnotch, and I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow!