Lost City 2005 Mission Images

The exploration of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field continues. The IFE Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) Hercules and Argus are capturing high definition video and images from sites around the Lost City hot springs system on a mountain top over 2,000 feet below the surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean. This data is then being streamed to researchers a quarter of the world away for analysis, while a live video stream has been made available to the public over the Internet. This Internet video stream at a resolution of only 352 x 240 pixels cannot match the torrent of information streaming over Internet 2 to researchers, but is a breakthrough for public outreach. Using Apple’s Quicktime video play, the video’s frame rate is relatively high and remains passable when the window is doubled in size.

The images from Lost City could be right out of a James Cameron movie. Hercules is attached to Argus by a long cable. While Argus takes context images from a safe distance, Hercules hovers close to the white and cr

The two goals of the mission were to return to Lost City for further exploration after its discovery in 2000 and to test technology for distributing data live to various research nodes on land. Previous missions required participating researchers to travel with the expedition. It is hoped that distributed data gathering using high definition video and images will increase scientific activity, allow more researchers to participate, and improve safety. Techniques learned during the Lost City 2005 mission may also be useful for future telepresence exploration of other bodies in our solar system. For example, future rover missions to Mars enabled with high definition video could increase scientific returns many times over the current Mars Exploration Rovers mission. A first step will be the ability of the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory rover to capture short video clips as it explores the Red Planet.

The Lost City 2005 mission continues through early next week, with live video expected throughout.

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Return to Lost City, Live!

In a remarkable display of the cutting-edge in robotics, telepresence, and ocean exploration, live video is streaming over the Internet from under the Atlantic Ocean. The public, students, educators, and scientists can all follow along as the crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ship Ronald H. Brown use IFE Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. Lost City is a hot spring system discovered late in 2000. The site is marked by gigantic white carbon carbonate chimneys and an active ecosystem fed by hydrogen and methane.

Mission data including high definition video and images is being streamed from robotic submersibles to facilities onboard the Ronald H. Brown that then retransmit the data via satellite and Internet 2 to participating research sites located on land. This new approach to research and public outreach could reshape scientific exploration of the oceans and lands of Earth as well as the rest of the solar system. The NOAA Ocean Explorer website provides a wealth of information about the mission, including the live video feed.

This weekend the Ronald H. Brown stopped first above a site several kilometers west of Lost City and sent down the ROV Hercules. This site has never been seen by human eyes and was picked because it is millions of years older than the Lost City but may contain a record of similar hydrothermal activity in the past. The ROV worked for several hours, returning video and images of a desolate landscape strewn with rocks. An operator onboard the Ronald H. Brown used Hercules‘ robotic arm to collected several rock samples. The operation of mechanic and robotic devices by a human at a distance is called telepresence. Popularized in such movies as Titanic, telepresence allows tactile exploration of sites that are too dangerous for a human to be present in person.

After recovering the ROV and the samples collected, the Ronald H. Brown is currently on route to Lost City where it will spend several more days in round-the-clock exploration. Located on top of a mountain near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a depth of over 2,100 feet, Lost City differs from the more commonly known “black smokers” hot springs found along sites where the ocean floor is spreading apart. While these other hot springs systems are caused by active magma chambers underneath the oceanic crust heating up seawater, the Lost City hot springs system is created by a chemical reaction between a rock called peridotite and seawater. Peridotite makes up much of the Earth’s mantle layer located below the crust, but at the Lost City site this mantle material has been exposed nearer the planet’s surface. As the peridotite and seawater react, they give off heat, resulting in a hydrothermal system.

Hot fluids within this system are laden with calcium and magnesium. When the fluid hits the colder seawater at the ocean floor, a second reaction produces calcium carbonate and brucite. These minerals give the growing chimneys at Lost City their distinctive white and cream colors. The process has been happening for at least 30,000 years. One of the mission goals is to determine the age of the site.

Lost City was first explored extensively in 2003. While total biomass is much smaller than other hot spring systems, researchers discovered there is much more diversity of creatures making the site their home. This includes microscopic methanogens that consume hydrogen and produce methane, as well as other organisms that consume this methane. Several new species were discovered. During the Lost City 2005 mission, researchers will look for even more new species while they try to better understand the Lost City and its formations. The complete mission exploration phase will last 10 days. The mission is led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the discoverer of the RMS Titantic, and Dr. Deborah S. Kelley, the co-discoverer of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field.

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Live Telepresence from the “Lost City”

The IFE ROV “Hercules” is sending stunning live video – broadcast over the Internet on the NOAA Ocean Explorer site – from near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a depth of over 2,000 feet. The mission? To explore the white carbonate chimneys and other geological formations at the “Lost City” site and surrounding areas.

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Live from the “Lost City”!

Lost City mission screenshotImage Courtesy NOAA, VBrick, EDS and TELEX/RTS.

I am watching live video footage from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean as I write this, courtesy of the NOAA Ocean Explorer site. The Lost City 2005 Expedition is using telepresence to operate the IFE ROV Hercules to explore the white carbonate chimneys and other geological formations from the “Lost City” site and surrounding areas. The spectacular locale at a depth of 2,100 feet was only discovered in the year 2000.

The expedition site is complete with information about the site and mission, blog updates from the crew, and the live video feed. The video is fascinating to watch, and truly dramatic reality television. For example, earlier this morning, the robot arm tried to place an orange object into its basket to take back up to the surface. However, the object appeared to be quite delicate and started to break apart. After several frustrating attempts, the operator was able to retrieve some of the object and drop it into the basket. Sounds lame? Just watch. This could turn out to be the most exciting movie I have seen all summer.

The expedition is scheduled to last through early August. I will provide further information and images on Frontier Channel.

Mini Mimas

The Cassini spacecraft recently returned a raw image of Saturn dwarfing its tiny moon Mimas. On Monday, July 18, 2005 Cassini was approximately 1,642,603 km (1,020,666 miles) away from Mimas and heading out toward its furthest position away from Saturn during this orbit. Orbit 12 will begin on July 24, 2005 with distant flybys of Mimas, Prometheus, and Calypso during the orbit. The next close flyby will occur on August 22, 2005 when Cassini passes less than 3,800 km (2,400 miles) from Titan during orbit 13.

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Shepherd Moons at Work

On February 20, 2005, the Cassini spacecraft took a picture of Pandora and Prometheus hard a work shepherding water ice particles and dust into a distinct F-ring unit within Saturn’s larger ring structure.

Historically, three main rings were discovered around Saturn, labeled C, B and A from the inside out. Later, fainter rings and structures within the larger rings were detected and labeled with additional letters from the alphabet. The F-ring is located outside of the A-ring. It is now known that many of these rings are in fact made up of even thinner ringlets. A large gap called the Cassini Division between B- and A-ring is not completely devoid of particles and was a concern when Cassini first arrived at the Saturn system in 2004. Cassini passed through the gap with no damage and has been hard at work studying the complex system of rings and gaps around Saturn ever since.

Many of the moons in the system interact with the rings to create their complex structure. Ringlets may vary slightly from each other in terms of composition and average particle size. Individual grains of primarily water ice in the rings can be as small as microscopic in size or as large as a boulder. The source of material for the rings is not well understood, but evidence suggests the rings are young and made up of material from some of the moons, perhaps through ice volcanoes.

While the rings of Saturn are easily visible to Earth-based telescopes, the amount of material in them is nearly negligible. The rings’ water ice composition and wide range reflects sunlight and give them their majesty. Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune are also known to have rings, albeit much less dramatic. Scientists will use Cassini to study the rings of Saturn in great detail over the next several years.

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Dust Devils on Mars

Standing kilometers tall, roaming the desert in crisscrossing paths, vacuuming or depositing dust, and possibly contributing to albedo (surface light reflection) and climate changes, images of dust devils in motion on Mars have been captured by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Spirit captured images of gusts and whirlwinds full of dust marching across Gusev Crater toward the rover on May 31, 2005. Scientists then enhanced the contrast in the images and pieced them together in consecutive order to create a movie depicting the violent movement of dust in the thin martian air.

The sand and dust in dust devils can whirl around at greater than 30 meters per second (70 miles per hour). Because the air is thin, even hurricane-speed winds exert little pressure on objects, but over time eolian (wind) erosion has left its mark on the Red Planet. In some areas winds have stripped out weaker rock leaving parallel depressions called yardangs lined up in the direction of the prevalent winds. In others, the eroded sand and dust has been deposited into sand dunes or wide-area dust deposits, effectively burying other landforms.

In a paper entitled “Three decades of Martian surface changes” by Paul E. Geissler from the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA suggests that dust devil activity during the summer in mid to high latitudes of Mars may contribute to albedo changes over several years or decades. As dust devils race across the surface they pick up sand and dust, revealing the darker bedrock beneath and decreasing albedo in the region. This darkening, when viewed up close, is caused by overlapping dust devil tracks. In areas where brighter sand and dust are deposited, albedo may increase.

NASA scientists believe dust devils could be potentially dangerous to visiting astronauts and their equipment. Aside from impacts from high-velocity sand and dust, astronauts may need to worry about electrical discharges around dust devils as well. Arcs of electricity between the dust devil and astronauts, vehicles or other equipment could fry unprotected electronics or interfere with communications. The electrostatic charge in individual grains of material may adhere sand and dust to space suits and other equipment. Habitats on Mars will need to take this into account to prevent contamination of living areas from outside particles.

Scientists will continue to collect data about dust devils on Mars and here on the Earth to better understand these dangers and create technological solutions. The data will also help them better understand how dust devils are created, the mechanics behind their motion across surfaces, and how they contribute to climate and other planetary and regional characteristics.

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“Florida” Wildfire Threatens Arizona Observatory

The view from Tumamoc Hill west of downtown Tucson says it all. A wildfire has spread to consume approximately 20,000 acres about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the city of Tucson in Arizona, United States, after a lightning strike on July 07, 2005. The fire has been given the name “Florida” and has been slowly growing over the past several days while firefighters try to contain it. Several roads around the region have been closed, public access has been limited, and people in the area have been evacuated.

In hopes of preventing damage to the MMT Observatory on the summit of Mt. Hopkins directly in the path of the oncoming fire front, a slurry of wet material was sprayed on the grounds around the telescope. Observatory personnel were evacuated along with other people in the region, but a few have returned on a limited basis to better prepare observatory equipment and buildings.

According to a Friday, July 15, 2005 update by the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, a resource team of 858 members is making use of helitankers, helicopters, air attack, fire engines, water tenders, and dozers to combat the fire. The terrain is rugged and the team has been moving containment lines away from the flames to keep firefighters safe.

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Targeting Enceladus

The above images and image to the left are the views of Enceladus as the Cassini spacecraft drew closer and closer on Thursday, July 14, 2005. By the time Cassini had passed the small moon it had come to within 172 km (107 miles) of the surface, the closest flyby yet in a 4-year mission to tour and collect data about the Saturnian system.

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Enceladus: Active Ice World?

Enceladus, a tiny moon of Saturn, may be a world of water ice volcanoes actively resurfacing the surrounding terrain, according to planetary scientists. Surprised by tantalizing evidence of activity, scientists believe Enceladus may be the primary source of material for one of Saturn’s rings.

Data from Titan has shown that water ice in the outer solar system is as hard as rock and plays a role similar to the silicates that make up the rocky bodies of the inner solar system. A gravitational tug-and-pull between Enceladus and another Saturnian moon, Mimas, may provide enough energy to partially melt portions of its inner mantle or core, providing a ready supply of material to erupt onto the surface and out into space. The possible presence of ammonia in that water may act as antifreeze to create “molten” water.

The Cassini spacecraft was commanded to fly by Enceladus on Thursday, July 14, 2005 much closer than originally planned. The flyby distance was only 172 km (107 miles) compared to 1,000 km (622 miles) to provide the highest resolution images ever of this ice world. Cassini will not fly by Enceladus again until March 12, 2008.

The Cassini mission team is currently processing the data and the first images are beginning to show up in the “Raw Images” database on the website. The image above was taken when Cassini was approximately 207,529 kilometers away from Enceladus. Scientists will look at images that include resolutions as small as 40 meters per pixel to try to determine if the moon is currently active. The surface map to the right illustrates the regions that were to be covered by Cassini’s cameras and the expected resolution. The south pole of Enceladus was to have been imaged for the first time. Check back with The Frontier Channel from time to time over the next few days for the latest news about the Enceladus flyby.

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