Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The incredible autonomous ships of the future: run by artificial intelligence rather than a crew

The Incredible Autonomous Ships Of The Future:
Run By Artificial Intelligence Rather Than A Crew
Adobe Stock/ Bernard Marr

From Forbes by Bernard Marr

There has been a lot of discussion about autonomous vehicles on the land and in the air, but what about on the sea?
While the world got the first glimpse of a fully autonomous ferry thanks to the collaboration between Rolls-Royce and Finferries, the state-owned ferry operator of Finland, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done before we can expect the world’s waterways to be overtaken with autonomous vessels.

Levels of Autonomy

Even though we might be years or even decades away from the majority of vessels becoming autonomous, there are certainly artificial intelligence algorithms at work today.
A fully autonomous ship would be considered a vessel that can operate on its own without a crew.
Remote ships are those that are operated by a human from shore, and an automated ship runs software that manages its movements.
As the technology matures, more types of ships will likely transition from being manned to having some autonomous capabilities.
Autonomous ships might be used for some applications, but it's quite possible that there will still be crew onboard some ships even if all hurdles to acquiring a fully autonomous fleet are crossed.

Autonomy in Ships

As we saw with the Finnish ferry, the first autonomous ships will be deployed on simple inland or coastal liner applications where waters are calm, the route is simple, and there isn't much traffic.

There’s also an inland electric container ship, Yara Birkeland, under construction that is expected to be completed in 2020 and fully autonomous by 2022.
Some companies are building fully autonomous ships from scratch, while other start-ups are developing semi-autonomous systems to be used on existing vessels.
When Rolls-Royce sold its autonomous maritime division to Kongsberg, it gave the Norwegian company a boost in its goal of being a leader in the autonomous shipping industry.
Samsung is another company that uses machine learning, augmented reality, analytics, and more to create a smart shipping platform through its Samsung Heavy Industries division.

Existing cargo ships have the chance to get retrofitted with autonomous technologies thanks to the efforts of start-ups such as San Francisco-based Shone.
Shone’s technology helps crews with piloting assistance and to detect and predict the movement of other vessels in the waterway.

Benefits of Autonomous Ships

Just as artificial intelligence and autonomy promise in other applications, it is expected that autonomous ships can improve safety, increase efficiency, and relieve humans from unsafe and repetitive tasks.

According to a study by Allianz, between 75% and 96% of maritime accidents are caused by human error.
If autonomous and semi-autonomous systems can help reduce the reliance on humans that can make mistakes due to fatigue or bad judgment, autonomous ships could eventually make our oceans safer.
Even if a crew is on board, the data gathered from the ship’s sensors combined with artificial intelligence algorithms will help the crew make better-informed decisions.

A reduction or elimination of crew reduces the personnel and auxiliary costs (such as onboard provisions and insurance) on a voyage.
Typically, crew-related expenses account for 30% of the budget.
There are also efficiencies realized in ship design and use of fuel.
One study projected savings of more than $7 million over 25 years per autonomous vessel from fuel savings and crew supplies and salaries.

Hurdles to Overcome

Since there are significant safety concerns especially with the enormous size of most ships operating in congested waters, there is a lot more testing to be done and regulations to be sorted out before we will see fully autonomous vessels operating without a crew.
Much more likely is that automated technologies will be used to reduce crews and to help the crew onboard make effective decisions.
In addition to ensuring the safety of ships, there needs to be a resolution about the regulation of our shared water.
Existing international conventions were created under the assumption a crew would be on board.
In response, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has kicked off its work to assess and update conventions to ensure safety in a new reality when AI is the captain instead of humans.

Until there is significant interest in fast-tracking research, development, and updates to regulations for autonomous ships, the industry will likely learn from the decisions made on land regarding autonomous cars and then apply that to autonomous ships.
Adoption and acceptance of autonomous cars in the coming years may put pressure on finding the same solutions for the sea.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

The mysterious final voyage of the Alta, Ireland’s doomed ghost ship

The abandoned 'Ghost Ship' MV ALTA washed up on the Irish coast during Storm Dennis.
Alta was abandoned in October 2018 after a US Coast Guard relief operation to rescue the crew about 2,200 km (1,400 miles) south-east of Bermuda, stranded after the ship was rendered irreparably disabled on a voyage from Greece to Haiti.
The ghost ship was then sighted by HMS Protector en route to the Bahamas.
In February 2020 the ghost ship Alta ran aground on the coast near Ballycotton, County Cork amid Storm Dennis.
This footage was filmed on Tuesday 18th February 2020. Video by Youghalonline

From Wired by Matt Burgess

The MV Alta drifted in the Atlantic ocean for 18 months, before crashing into the coast of Ireland.
Tracking and current data gives us intriguing clues about its final, fateful voyage

Storm Dennis swept in from the Atlantic, its high winds and heavy rains driven by a powerful jet stream.
The extreme weather, which battered the UK and Ireland in February, flooded of thousands of homes and caused widespread travel disruption and several deaths.

In Ireland, it created a mystery.
At some point in the early hours of February 16, a ship washed up on the rocks off the village of Ballycotton in County Cork.
First spotted by a jogger out for their Sunday lunchtime run, the ship was soon making global headlines.

In its final resting place, the MV Alta was perched sideways on top of a series of jagged rocks, its starboard side facing inland.
The ship looks like it could fall at any moment.
The Alta, which was built in 1976, bares all the marks of years of hard work at sea.
But as it made land, the ship was empty.

The Alta, it turned out, was a ghost ship.
It had been floating around the mid-Atlantic without a soul onboard since the Autumn of 2018.
Ghost ships are not unheard of but they are rare.
The Alta is even more unusual for how long it drifted – almost 18 months in total – during which time it was battered by huge storms and shifted by strong currents.
And, during that whole time, it was only spotted once.
By chance it managed to avoid major shipping routes and other obstacles, leaving its small cargo of oil barrels intact.

The ship's true owners remain unknown, although it was last sailing under the flag of Tanzania, and the vessel has changed its name four times during the last half decade.
Now ocean current analysis and analysis of data sent out by the ship's onboard Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders – a technology underpinned by GPS – have shed some light on its most likely path to Ireland.

The last recorded journey of the Alta is a long one.
Transmissions from its AIS data show the vessel was in Piraeus, a port city in Greece, in October 2017.
From here it sailed around Greece's Peloponnese peninsula before docking at the city of Kalamata in November.
The next ten months saw the Alta visiting three other Greek ports – in Piraeus, Paloukia and Salamina – around a dozen times.

Then something strange happened.
In September 2018 the vessel's AIS data showed it at the port of Ceuta, a small Spanish enclave on the north coast of Africa, more than 2,000 kilometres from the Greek ports it was last recorded at.
“It's truly a mystery ship,” says Georgios Hatzimanolis, an analyst at ship tracking website MarineTraffic, one of several firms to have looked at AIS data of the vessel.

“Since August 2015 it has been switching [AIS] on and off sporadically while making some really strange trips,” Hatzimanolis says.
“One from Genoa to Athens and then it switched it off again for a year and a half, then switched it back.” Hatzimanolis says this is “not normal behaviour” – nor is it normal for a ship to change its name and flag so regularly, he adds.

These strange patterns repeated until the Alta reached Ceuta.
It was at this point that the ship headed for open waters on its fateful final, manned, journey.
It was destined for Haiti.
It ended up in Ireland.

The animation above, produced by analysts at Spire Maritime, shows what happened to the Alta.
It left the Strait of Gibraltar in September 2018, before moving into the Atlantic.
“They have the speed going through the Atlantic,” says Max Abouchar, an engineer at Spire.
When the red line of travel turns white, this is the moment the ship slowed down.

“Somewhere, almost mid-Atlantic they suddenly just stop,” Abouchar says.
The period shown in the animation covers September to October 2018.
When the ship slowed down it is predicted to have been travelling at speeds of around 0.1 or 0.2 knots, which equates to around 0.2 to 0.3 kilometres per hour.
Put bluntly: it was barely moving at all.
“They drifted around a bit, probably just by the currents.
Then they move a little bit quicker, especially East, towards in the direction of Africa.” Abouchar, who uses Spire's data gathered by satellites to monitor currents, says these looped movements are unlikely to just be the sea moving the ship around.

Instead, he speculates, the vessel was either trying to move under its own power or that it was being towed by another vessel.
“Whatever was towing it or driving it gave up after a while,” Abouchar says.

It was around this time that US authorities became involved with the Alta.
In October 2018, the USCGC Confidence, a coastguard ship, is reported to have rescued ten crew from the vessel.
At the time GCaptain reported that the seafarers were stranded on the boat that was around 1,300 miles southeast of Bermuda.
They had been stuck on the ship for 20 days and had received a food supply, dropped by a coast guard plane, on October 2.

“We were conducting a law enforcement patrol near Puerto Rico when we were assigned to assist the crew of the motor vessel Alta,” Confidence commander Travis Emge told GCaptain.
“We traveled over 1,300 nautical miles to get to the disabled ship.” The coast guard said the crew were being taken to Puerto Rico and the ship's owners were being contacted so Alta could be towed back to shore.
But this never happened.

“Maritime is a really low margin commercial endeavour,” says Dana Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a non-profit which campaigns for better GPS security.
“Except for the cruise line industry, there's not a lot of extra money floating around.
“Actually getting a hold of a real person by the collar and saying, 'come and get your ship' can be a challenge.”

No available data has been able to track the Alta's exact route through the Atlantic to Ireland.
Once the its AIS stopped transmitting – most likely due to it being abandoned – it became far harder to monitor the ship's movements.

While the Alta looks huge when it's nestled against the coast of Ballycotton, in the middle of thousands of miles of Atlantic it's a tiny dot.
Tracking ships that aren't transmitting AIS data is virtually impossible.
“There's certainly nothing off the shelf that I can think of that could provide that kind of long term tracking and warning of other vessels,” Goward says.
“You could hook up an AIS unit with a battery and put it there.
But that would only last a couple of weeks.”

Vessels that disable AIS on purpose are almost always operating illegally.
At the start of 2018, the European Commission opened an investigation into two vessels believe to be turning off their AIS transponders to fish illegally.
On the high seas, so-called dark ships are a big problem.

The US Navy is looking for a way to fix this.
It has issued a tenderfor technology companies to produce a system that can help it “more clearly mark objects in water”.
But that's come too late to help people trace how the Alta reached Ireland.

Previous reports speculate that the Alta may have drifted up the coast of Africa towards the UK and its final resting place.
Abouchar doesn't believe this to be the case.
“It would be against all currents and they would have met quite a bit of traffic,” he explains.
Where the Alta stopped transmitting AIS data is roughly near the centre of where currents in the Atlantic circulate.

During all its months at the mercy of the Atlantic the ghost ship was only spotted once – by the British Royal Navy.
On September 2, 2019, almost a year after its crew were rescued, staff aboard the HMS Protector tweeted they had discovered the Alta in a “strange event”.
The crew put the call out asking if it required any help, but no response was received.

The HMS Protector didn't state its location but analysts looking at its movements say a day after the social media post it was in Bermuda – around 1,300 miles from the last known location of the Alta.
In the grand scale of the ocean, this isn't that far from Canada and Newfoundland.

Ocean current data collected from Spire's satellites and modelling – shown above – gives a clue of how the Alta ended up in Europe.
The animation above shows how currents were moving in the months before the vessel was grounded.
Each arrow shows the direction currents were flowing, with the red overlays demonstrating faster moving streams.
All arrows point to Ireland.

“If you started up North, near Canada and Newfoundland, you would catch a major current stream heading from there and that would have definitely washed you up at Ireland,” Abouchar says.
“It would take quite a while to move the distance it did, until it reached that stream up by Newfoundland.
That's going at one or two knots.”

Despite the slow speed, there was plenty of time between the Alta being seeing by the Royal Navy to the final crossing of the Atlantic.
“With the oceans behaving as they do, if the ship didn't have anyone on it, it would have followed the ocean path and eventually ended up somewhere around the UK or British Isles area,” Abouchar adds.

 Ballycotton Bay with the GeoGarage platform (UKHO nautical map)

The MV Alta on the coast of Ireland on March 15, as seen by satellite
Planet Labs Inc

When it finally ran aground in Ireland one member of the local coastguard said it was a “one in a million” chance.
More than a month after it marooned, the Alta remains in the same position.
Ireland's revenue commissioners have become the “receiver of wreck” as a result of it running aground on Irish land.
A person who is believed to be connected to the ship's owner made contact with authorities, but no action has been taken.
"The council continues to liaise with Revenue regarding ownership of the vessel," a spokesperson for Cork County Council says.

The local authorities have scrambling to make the wreckage safe.
A group of teenagers boarded the ship one night.
They recorded a haunting video from inside the vessel, where debris has been thrown around by the power of the ocean.

Officials have airlifted 95 oil barrels from the boat – 62 of these were full.
"The council is engaged with relevant experts to assess whether there are any residual environmental or ecological risks posed by the vessel," a spokesperson for the council says.
Absorbent pads have also been placed around pipes on the vessel that may contain oil.
To stop anyone else boarding the Alta engineers have removed the ship's ladders and closed off all access points.

“It's bad that the Alta came ashore on the Irish coast,” Goward says.
“But it could have been a lot worse: it could have strayed into a traffic lane or the English Channel and someone could have rammed right into it, sunk, and could have had a major loss in life or more of a significant pollution incident.
At least in this instance it was controllable.”

Links :

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Danton tears

Hit on 19 March 1917 by two torpedoes fired by the German submarine U64, the battleship Danton took nearly two thirds of the men on board with it.

Discovered in 2008 in the south of Sardinia, the wreck of this vessel lies in 1025 m of water.
Travel to the heart of this emblematic event of the First World War. 
Shipwreck localization with the GeoGarage platform (SHOM nautical chart) 

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Saildrone's teaching modules bring Antarctica to your home school

From Hydro

In many countries schools are closed and parents have to teach their children themselves.
To help them a bit, Saildrone has put together a free teaching package.
The US-based company designs and manufactures wind and solar-powered autonomous surface vehicles called saildrones.

On its website, the company writes: "In this unprecedented time, many parents, including those at Saildrone, are now finding themselves not only working from home, but also with a new side gig: Teacher.
Saildrone is proud to share a series of fun and engaging educational tools inspired by our autonomous vehicles and developed to bring the mysteries of Antarctica to students around the world."

Antarctic Mission

Saildrone has developed three modules as part of the Antarctic mission and a link to access the individual lesson plans.
Each lesson includes a class presentation, activities, and printable visual aids.
Teaching notes are also included to help guide teachers—and parents—through each lesson.
All materials are free—no registration required. (Download here).

So, if you like to explore the Southern Ocean with your kids—these fun and engaging STEM-oriented lesson plans discuss the incredible aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem and how it affects the rest of the planet.

Links :

Friday, March 27, 2020

As the ocean warms, marine species relocate toward the poles

Climate change drives poleward increases and equatorward declines of marine species

From Phys by Bristol Univ.

A global analysis of over 300 marine species spanning more than 100 years, shows that mammals, plankton, fish, plants and seabirds have been changing in abundance as our climate warms.

At the cool edge of species ranges marine life is doing well as warming opens up habitat that was previously inaccessible, while at the warmer edge species are declining as conditions become too warm to tolerate.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Exeter, reviewed 540 published records of species abundance changes to investigate how marine plants and animals are responding to warming seas.

 This graph shows a yearly count of marine heatwave days from 1900 to 2016, as a global average

Martin Genner, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, who guided the research, said: "We drew together an extensive collection of survey records that reported how species abundances have changed over the last century, as the world's oceans warmed by over 1°C. We then identified the location of each study in relation to the full global distribution of the species and asked if abundance changes depended on where a species was studied."

 Scientists assessed more than 100 years of data looking at where populations of various marine life is thriving.
They found animals are now favouring the polar ends of their natural ranges.
Pictured, diagram showing the range of two species (discs) and the sites at different latitudes where data on population numbers was gathered

Louise Rutterford, an author of the study based at both Exeter and Bristol explains: "Marine species distributions are limited by cold temperatures towards the poles and high temperatures towards the equator. We predicted that warming seas would lead each species to increase in abundance at the poleward side of its range, as the warmer climate made the habitat more agreeable. We also predicted that each species would decline in abundance at the equatorward side of its range, as temperatures become too warm to survive."

The team's analysis showed that populations of marine creatures at both polar and equatorial range boundaries are undergoing species abundance changes as predicted.
For example, populations of Atlantic herring and Adélie penguins were both declining in abundance at the warmer edges of their ranges and increasing in abundance at the cooler edges of their ranges.

 Unusually warm periods can last for weeks or months, killing off kelp forests and corals, and producing other significant impacts on marine ecosystems, fishing and aquaculture industries worldwide (pictured)

Rutterford adds: "Some marine species appear to benefit from climate change, particularly some populations at the poleward limits that are now able to thrive. Meanwhile, some marine life suffers as it is not able to adapt fast enough to survive warming, and this is most noticeable in populations nearer the equator. This is concerning as both increasing and decreasing abundances may have harmful knock-on effects for the wider ecosystem."

 Examples of marine heatwave impacts on ecosystems and species.
Coral bleaching and seagrass die-back (top left and right).
Mass mortality and changes in patterns of commercially important species s (bottom left and right)

Given that warming is predicted to increase up to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels by 2050, the study indicates that species are likely to undergo further shifts in abundance over the coming decades. Rutterford explains: "We anticipate that marine species will be increasingly affected by climate change. This may lead to opportunity, such as greater catches of warm-water fishes that were previously uncommon. However, there could be negative effects for coastal livelihoods, for example if warming seas enable harmful warm-water parasites to thrive in aquaculture systems where previously they were rare."

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

NOAA seeks partnership to help develop world’s best weather model

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) GOES-16 satellite image captures the rapidly-deepening storm off the East coast of the United States on Jan. 4, 2018, at 16:22 UTC.
Image credit: NASA

From NOAA by Christopher Vaccaro

NOAA is seeking a technology partner to help design and build the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC).
This extramural center will accelerate scientific research and engineering to create the world’s most accurate and reliable operational weather forecast model.

NOAA is in search of proven expertise in software engineering, software infrastructure development, and the delivery of world-class support services to government, academic and industry research scientists — those who will collaborate within the EPIC structure.

“Through EPIC, the United States has a unique opportunity to harness the talents of the most brilliant modelers in the world to advance operational global numerical weather prediction,” said Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., acting NOAA administrator.
“Advancing our operational weather modeling capability will improve forecasts and lead to more resilient communities.”

EPIC is a joint effort across the Weather Enterprise (private, public and academic) to improve operational modeling skill by making it easier for developers across all sectors to collaborate using common modeling infrastructure to improve the nation’s operational weather model.
This approach leverages combined skills and resources, and lowers barriers to interaction and shared ideas through the use of cloud computing and a community modeling approach called the Unified Forecast System.offsite link

A Request for Proposals (RFP) will be issued on Monday, March 23, and calls for an award of up to $45 million for 5 years.
Offerors have until May 11, 2020, to submit proposals.
For more information, please see the EPIC Synopsis. After careful review of the proposals, NOAA plans to make the award by Fall 2020.

The RFP is part of a major, multi-step effort to solidify NOAA’s international leadership role in weather modeling.
In mid-February, NOAA announced it will triple operational supercomputing capacity.
The new supercomputers will provide operational capacity to quickly transition research and development advancements, including those under EPIC, into operations at NOAA’s National Weather Service.
Earlier this month, NOAA publicly released the first round of user-friendly computer codes for medium-range weather prediction.
The release will enable other government, academic and industry researchers to help NOAA accelerate the transition of modeling research innovations into weather forecast operations.

The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 is the driving force behind the latest steps by NOAA to dramatically advance numerical weather prediction.
The law directs NOAA to prioritize improving weather data, modeling, computing, forecasting, and warnings for the protection of life and property and to enhance the national economy.
Congress further called for NOAA to accelerate community-developed scientific and technological enhancements to its operational numerical weather prediction in the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Inside the daring mission to reach the bottom of all Earth’s oceans

Victor Vescovo

From Wired by Tom Ward

Victor Vescovo wanted to be the first person to reach the deepest points of all five oceans – but first he had to build a submarine that was up to it

Victor Vescovo is ready to make history.
It’s 12.37pm on Saturday August 24, 2019, and the 53-year-old Texan is about to attempt to pilot his bespoke submersible to the bottom of the Molloy Deep, a nodal basin (one that is unaffected by tidal movements) 5,550 metres deep, located in the Fram Strait, between the Arctic Ocean and the Norwegian and Greenland Seas.
To arrive here, 48 crew members and passengers on the research vessel DSSV Pressure Drop have sailed 17 hours from the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard into the open expanse of the Arctic Ocean.
By diving down to the seabed, Vescovo hopes to become the first person in history not only to touch down on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, but to have explored the deepest point of all five of the Earth’s oceans.

The Five Deeps expedition got under way in December 2018, when Vescovo took his submersible, called Limiting Factor, to the 8,376m depths of the Atlantic Ocean’s Puerto Rico Trench.
Since then he has made contact with the Antarctic Ocean’s 7,433m South Sandwich Trench, the Indian Ocean’s 7,192m Java Trench, and the Pacific Ocean’s 10,925m Mariana Trench, en route to his last stop at the top of the world.

This final Five Deeps dive is the culmination of over four years of planning.
It is an odyssey that has seen Pressure Drop cover 46,262 nautical miles, employing hundreds of research scientists, expedition staff, engineers and ship’s crew at a cost of millions of dollars – a bill footed by Vescovo, who operates a private equity firm when he isn’t venturing to the Earth’s most remote places.
The success of the project depends on this final dive.
Vescovo has a three-day window before a storm is set to arrive over the Molloy, bringing with it three-metre waves and 40-knot winds.
Miss this opportunity, and he will have to wait another year.
Today, dive day, the wind chill factor contributes to an air temperature of -8C, and the water temperature is just 0.4C.
It is, as a crew member remarks, “as cold as water gets before it freezes”.
Before Vescovo even begins his descent to the bottom of the ocean, the pressure is immense.

Limiting Factor – a titanium machine that resembles more a squashed milk carton with two eye-like portals than a traditional cylindrical submarine – has been manoeuvred into position by a huge metal A-frame launcher, and is now suspended securely over the back of the ship, awaiting its lone passenger.
With safety and systems checks completed, Vescovo emerges on to the aft main deck, dressed in blue overalls with a cream cardigan visible at the neck.
A patch on his chest reads "Vescovo"; on his right arm are the Texas and US flags.
His metallic blonde hair is tucked beneath a black beanie, and his grey beard is split by a sharp-toothed smile.
He moves around the deck, shaking hands.
“Last one,” he repeats to each crew member.
It is easy to picture him, in a parallel life, preparing to blast off into the far reaches of space.

Vescovo’s submersible is the first to be designed for repeat visits to such depths.
On the darkness of the ocean floor, this 11.7-tonne vessel, 4.5 metres long, will be his single link with the world above.
Should anything go wrong, there will be no escape.
More than 5,000 metres below the surface of the ocean, there are no footsteps to follow in, no safety ropes for guidance.
This final dive must be undertaken alone.

With the submersible ready to launch, Vescovo clambers onboard.
Before he climbs inside, he holds up an index finger – "one", representing the last dive standing between him and history.
He disappears inside the shiny white hull.
Hatch secured, Limiting Factor is lowered into the iron-green ocean, a current buffeting its sides.
A swimmer, encased in a thick, Arctic-proof wetsuit, balances on top of the vehicle, disconnecting safety lines before diving into the ocean and swimming to a waiting Zodiac boat.
With all eyes watching, the submersible begins to sink beneath the swell, its hull disappearing, an orange flag waving above the surface to indicate its position.
Soon there is only a brief patch of oxidised teal ocean where the sub once was.
Then that too washes away, as submersible and pilot sink into the depths.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

Vescovo operated his first vehicle in 1969, when he was just three years old.
Stealing away from his parents at the family home in Dallas, Texas, he climbed into the front seat of their car, put it into neutral, and rolled on to a nearby highway.
What happened next was, he says, “a really bad accident”.
Miraculously, no one else was hurt, but the three-year-old Vescovo was crushed inside the car.
He spent six weeks in intensive care, his skull was fractured in three places, and he required 100 stitches.
Although he slowly recovered, he still does not have any feeling in the side of his right hand.
“My dad said the Lord saved me,” he says.
“But I just thought I’d been lucky.
I realised then that we were all living on borrowed time.”

We’re talking inside Vescovo’s generous cabin on board Pressure Drop.
On the walls are half a dozen photographs of waves by French photographer Pierre Carreau.
The bookshelves hold a selection of sci-fi titles; both Pressure Drop and Limiting Factortake their names from sentient spaceships in Iain M Banks’s Culture series.

Growing up, a sci-fi obsessed Vescovo had hoped to graduate from purloined cars to fighter jets.
A failed eye test put the brakes on that plan, so he made a detour into aerospace design at Stanford.
But it wasn’t for him.
“I could do it but I wasn’t that good at it,” Vescovo shrugs.
He switched to a double major in economics and political sciences, and has continued detouring ever since.
He has worked in finance on Wall Street and in Saudi Arabia, management consultancy in Dallas, and at a dotcom era startup in San Francisco.
He served as a reserve intelligence officer in the US Navy from 1993 to 2013, supporting combat operations in Serbia from the Nato HQ in Naples, Italy, as well as rear-area HQs in South Korea and the Persian Gulf.

In 2002, he finally settled in private equity, amassing enough money to fund a climbing hobby that took him to the Seven Summits – the highest mountains of each continent – followed by expeditions to both poles.
Having thus completed the “Adventurer’s Grand Slam”, Vescovo alighted on the idea of diving thanks to the influence of another affluent businessman with a thirst for adventure.
Richard Branson had been talking about his plans for Virgin Oceanic, a commercial project designed to take customers to the deepest parts of the five oceans, since 2009; he saw it as “the last great challenge for humans”.
Although the Virgin project was mothballed in 2014 due to difficulties in developing the necessary technology, Vescovo knew he had found his next mission.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

“Branson chose a technology that was going to be based on carbon fibre.
It was a little out there,” Vescovo says.
“But I couldn’t believe no one had ever tried it – that no person had ever been to the bottom of four of our oceans.
It was obviously possible, because James Cameron did it in the Mariana Trench in 2012.
I thought, how hard could that be?”

Initially, Vescovo thought he’d just buy Cameron’s sub, refurbish it, and dive in it to the bottom of the oceans.
But he judged Cameron’s tech to be out of date, requiring too many costly upgrades.
Deciding that what he really needed was his own craft, he reached out to Patrick Lahey, president of Florida-based Triton Submarines.

Born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1962, Lahey has been diving since 1975 and has almost 40 years of commercial underwater experience.
He co-founded Triton in 2008.
When Vescovo got in touch about building a deep-sea vehicle that could reach the bottom of five oceans, he saw it as a chance to realise a long-held ambition.
“It’s something we always wanted to do,” he says.

Their first meeting took place in May 2015, when Vescovo flew to the Bahamas to attend a dive with Lahey and Triton’s principal design engineer, John Ramsay.
Vescovo outlined his desire for a submersible that could simply go down and come back up again; anything else was superfluous.
“I said: ‘The design needs to be the AK-47 principle.
It needs to be functional and reliable, and work.
Don’t go off the reservation with bells and whistles.
Make it simple and reliable,’” Vescovo says.

As far as Triton was concerned, this initial brief was a little too simple.
“His original concept was a steel sphere with no windows,” Lahey says.
“We weren’t interested in building that.” For Triton, the submersible (officially designated the Triton 36,000/2) had to have commercial applications so that further models might be sold after Vescovo’s dives.
For this to happen, it would need two seats (to accommodate a pilot and a scientist), a manipulator arm and, crucially, windows instead of the system of external cameras and internal screens Vescovo initially proposed.
“The whole point of a human-manned submersible is that it’s a visual tool,” Lahey says.
“There’s no way you can duplicate our sense of sight.
When you’re down there looking out that window, it’s like you’re hardwired to your eyeballs.
You drink information in in a different way.
There’s an immediacy to it, and an effectiveness.” Eventually Vescovo agreed, and signed Triton up to design his one-of-a-kind machine.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

As principal design engineer, Ramsay, a 39-year-old from north Lincolnshire, was tasked with bringing Vescovo’s vision to life – starting with the windows.
Every submersible contains a pressure hull in which the pilot is encased.
In this instance, the most protective shape was a spherical control centre, with the wiring, mechanics and foam buoyancy aids stored outside in the main body of the vessel.
The difficulty Ramsay and his team faced was that, if you punch a hole in this sphere for windows, you create an uneven shape, which is at risk of buckling under oceanic pressure.
And at 11,000 metres, Vescovo’s deepest dive, that could be fatal.
“Windows are a monstrous design exercise,” Ramsay says.
“Making sure they don’t pop the viewports out, or collapse in, is a literal balancing act of stresses.”

He opted for a unique solution: three 200mm-thick conical windows made from acrylic.
To accommodate the immense 110.3 megapascal pressures acting on the window surface at 11,000 metres, the windows taper, with a degree of empty space between them and the sides of the window casing.
This means that, by a depth of 6,000m, the windows have been forced inward 7mm due to outside pressure.
Without this ability to move, stress would collect at certain points, potentially causing fractures that would compromise the sub’s integrity.

Another consideration was the shape of the submersible.
Most are organised lengthways, with a narrow viewing portal and the pilot’s sphere at the front of a long tube, but this limits the vehicle’s movement to left and right.
On commercial or oil industry dives, this doesn’t matter so much, but in the mostly un-plunged depths of the five oceans, it was important that Vescovo’s sub had as much manoeuvrability as possible, both to aid navigation around uncharted terrain and to offer the best viewing opportunities of sea floor flora and fauna.

To that end, Ramsay searched for shapes that were streamlined in both directions, eventually taking inspiration from rugby balls and bullet trains.
“We spun the sub 90 degrees and had it totally symmetrical,” he says.
“That means you can get amazing manoeuvrability and maintain that elliptical shape.
When you’re on a vertical dive site it’s easy to shift side to side and up and down, as it’s streamlined in those directions.”

Triton outfitted Limiting Factor with ten thrusters, allowing it to move up and down, to port and starboard, forward and back.
But even the thrusters presented a new challenge.
“The biggest fear of any submersible pilot is nets or ropes getting sucked into the thrusters,” Ramsay explains.
“Usually, you’d have a rescue sub that could get down with a manipulator arm and cut you free; with the Limiting Factor that’s impossible.
By the time you're past 6,000 metres, no one is going to rescue you.
Get tangled on a bit of fishing net hooked on some rocks and you have no chance.”

The solution was simple but elegant.
The submersible already had external battery packs which could be separated from the body by an explosive bolt (one that can be electrically actuated to break), in case it needed to shed weight quickly to return to the surface.
The thrusters would be attached by the same type of bolt.
Should the sub become entangled, all Vescovo would need to do is activate the eject mechanism, and the thrusters would separate and float away, casting the vessel free.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

As for the interior components, designers can usually borrow off-the-shelf parts from the oil and gas industry.
But their subs rarely dive deeper than 6,000 metres, meaning Ramsay and Triton’s principal electrical design engineer, Tom Blades, had to look further.
When it came to one particular element needed for the pressure-tolerant motor controllers, a device used to control the speed and torque of the sub’s motor, Blades and his team had to test each component manually.
They found that the quality differed even in parts from the same manufacturer, depending on the factory they came from.
“The manufacturer had no way of differentiating them,” he says.
“We could tell a slight difference in the shade of green.
We had to buy twice as many, manually look at the colour, then put them all though individual testing before we built the circuit boards.”

Another niggle was background noise interrupting communications between Limiting Factor and Pressure Drop.
At 11,000 metres, an audio signal takes seven seconds to travel one way, meaning Vescovo was frequently waiting upwards of 15 seconds for a reply – and that’s without interference.
To demonstrate the problem, Blades pulls out his phone and plays a recording.
Heard loud and clear over the airwaves, instead of Vescovo’s messages, is the hunting sonar of a school of whales.
The solution? Install a filtering circuit, or try again when the oceanic traffic has died down.

“[Designing subs] is great, because there aren’t many people doing it,” Ramsay says.
“Think how many generations cars have been through, everything is so refined.
You sit in a car – any car – and you know where the steering wheel is going to be, you know where the three pedals are going to be, where the gear stick and door handles are going to be.
You don’t have to look.
A sub is totally different; there are no set rules.”

The last hurdle was testing at depth.
To do this, the team travelled to the Krylov State Research Centre in St Petersburg, Russia – the only facility in the world capable of replicating full oceanic pressure – in early 2018.
The pressure hull was placed in the facility’s DK-1000 hydraulic pressure test tank, where it was exposed to pressure in the region of 60,000 tonnes – 1.2 times the pressure at the maximum possible diving depth of the Mariana Trench.
“During testing, the pressure hull was filled with water, with a pipe allowing water to come out as they increased the pressure,” explains Ramsay.
“They do this because if the sub hull imploded during testing, the amount of energy released would be enough to destroy the entire facility.”

The submersible was given a pressure rating of 116.7 megapascals, essentially certifying it to an unlimited diving capacity (a commercial sub might have a rating of 17 megapascals).
Finally, after almost four years of work, Limiting Factor was ready to go.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

Before the Molloy dive, Vescovo gives a tour of the finished sub.
The pilot’s sphere measures 1.76 cubic metres.
There are two seats, with the viewing portals at knee height.
At chest height, a row of ten spun-carbon-fibre oxygen tanks allow for four days’ oxygen for two people, should the worst happen.
The craft is controlled via a joystick, not unlike a helicopter.
Behind us is an array of switches controlling everything from lights to comms to air temperature.
To help Vescovo get to grips with the sub prior to launch, Lahey built a simulator on which he would practice in his garage in Dallas.
By the time he got into the real vehicle, he knew exactly where everything was, and what the procedures were.

Vescovo’s first action on a descent is to use ballast pumps to make the sub negatively buoyant.
Depending on the depth of the dive, he may then spend up to the next three hours sinking to the ocean floor.
On one dive, he watched the Netflix film Outlaw King on his phone to pass the time, alongside the usual system checks and radio updates with Pressure Drop every 15 minutes.
Around 200 metres from the bottom, Vescovo ejects a series of 5kg weights to become neutrally buoyant and so control the final stage of his descent.
With Limiting Factor safely on the bottom, Vescovo will spend the next two to four hours using the manipulator arm to take rock samples, then travel around the ocean floor, videoing as much biological, geological and cartographical information as he can.
To return to the world above, he ejects a series of 10kg weights, which makes the sub buoyant enough to return to the surface.

Despite his dives lasting up to 12 hours, Vescovo says he never gets claustrophobic: “I like diving solo.” On the Mariana Trench dive, he even took time to use some advice imparted by James Cameron.
“I got my tunafish sandwich, sat back in my chair with my feet up, drinking my Coke, and just looked out the portal,” Vescovo says.
“I was just drifting at the bottom of the ocean, thinking ‘This is so cool’.”

To Vescovo’s surprise, the depths of the ocean were far from empty, eerie deserts.
“The Southern Ocean was a darn grocery store,” he says, describing seeing krill, micro-shrimps, jellyfish and plankton; and, on the Mariana Trench dive, human contamination in the form of a three- to four-inch scrap of either plastic or fabric with a printed "S" on it.
As Vescovo did not retrieve this, he cannot be sure what it was, but he remains adamant that it was not, as widely reported, a carrier bag floating around at 11,000 metres.

Over the course of the expedition, Vescovo has become increasingly interested in science, occasionally carrying out subsequent explorations alongside Alan Jamieson, a marine ecologist at Newcastle University, and Heather Stewart, a marine geologist at the British Geological Survey.
Together, they have found multiple new species of fish, which are analysed in Pressure Drop’s wet and dry labs.
Vescovo says that invisible micro-plastics are “the real, pernicious danger to humankind – the micro and nano-plastics that will get into the very smallest bases of the food chain”.

The mission hasn’t always been plain sailing.
The two most dangerous things that can happen inside a submersible at depth are a leak or a fire.
Either situation is, Vescovo says, “the stuff of nightmares”.
Vescovo and Lahey were on an early test dive in the Bahamas, cruising at about 5,000 metres, when they smelled smoke.
They were two hours from the surface.
“We’d just powered up the manipulator and it must have burned out some insulation in one of the circuit boards,” Vescovo says.
“Patrick and I just looked at each other, both thinking, ‘What do we do?’ We turned off the offending circuit, and thankfully the problem went away.” Although confident the danger had passed, Vescovo and Lahey followed protocol and immediately began their ascent.

“All hell broke loose [in the Pressure Drop control room],” says Rob McCallum, founding partner of EYOS Expeditions, and the man responsible for running the logistical side of the Five Deeps operation.
“It became apparent about halfway through the ascent that it was just a popped fuse.
For a submersible, a fire inside is the worst scenario.
Even a popped fuse in an oxygen-rich environment can be a real problem; look at the Space Shuttle Challenger.” It was an early warning, and exactly what test dives are for.
To Vescovo, it hammered home that, despite rigorous testing, there is always room for error.

“You know the maths, but you do have in the back of your mind, ‘What if it’s wrong?’” he says.
“Even though we tested it, what if there’s something different in the real ocean? You just don’t know.
You’re watching the depth tick down 7,000, 8,000, 9,000 metres, and you know how much pressure is out there.
You’re just hoping you don’t spring a leak or something.”

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

Each dive has presented its own unique problems.
The second voyage, to the Antarctic’s South Sandwich Trench, required a gruelling 30-day journey from Montevideo, Uruguay to Cape Town, South Africa, with a few days allowance for the dive in the middle.
Despite an extra level of caution around icebergs, the dive was successful.

On the Mariana Trench dive, the sheer length of time it took Vescovo to travel 11,000 metres down meant the ship’s crew were often working around the clock.
“There’s no time to rest the crew, or swap them out,” McCallum says.
“After 10 days of doing a deep dive every second day, people are shot.”

But the first dive, in the Atlantic’s Puerto Rico Trench was undoubtedly the most difficult.
“The first dive was different, because it was the final step in a gruelling series of sea trials,” says McCallum.
As the team was preparing to tick off the first dive, the submersible experienced systems failure three days in a row.
“It was our first real test out of a trial situation, and it was ugly.
It got to the point where Victor sat in my office and said: ‘Either it works tomorrow or I’m scrapping the whole thing.’”

On the fourth day, McCallum briefed the team.
“I said: ‘We don’t want miracles, we’re not going to give you a big rah-rah, yay team speech.
But we’ve had four months of practising, you all know what to do, so go out there and do it.
No more, no less.’ And they did.”

There was applause, cheers, hugs and tears when Vescovo radioed to say he had finally made it to the bottom of his first ocean.
“He came up at sunset, you had this big orange sky, and he surfaced right on dusk with the lights on under the water,” McCallum says.
“It was a magic day.”

Ahead of his final Five Deeps dive in the Molloy Deep, Vescovo is feeling confident.
“One can never be complacent diving 5,000-plus metres, but by this point we have refined our launch and recovery procedures, diving protocols, and emergency procedures, and are confident that things will go smoothly,” he says.

Reeve Jolliffe and Enrico Sacchetti

Back in the Arctic Ocean, at 3.34pm – three hours after Vescovo started his descent – word arrives from Limiting Factor that sub and pilot have safely touched down at the bottom of the Molloy Deep.
There are cheers and claps in the control room.
Vescovo and his team have made history.
But there is still the small matter of returning to the surface.

Limiting Factor surfaces 150m away from Pressure Drop, just before 8.40pm.
The ship adjusts its course, launching the Zodiac and a 28ft protector RHIB boat as all hands make ready to receive the submersible, a flat white shape buffeted by the waves.
The swimmer climbs aboard and attaches the safety lines, then Limiting Factor is winched out of the water, up to the back of the mothership's aft main deck in a fluid reverse of the launch some eight hours earlier.

The cockpit opens, and Vescovo’s hand emerges, five fingers splayed: five dives completed.
He may be one of 416 people to have completed the Seven Summits and one of 12 Americans to have climbed the Summits and skied to the two poles – but he has just become the only person in the world to have dived to the bottom of the five oceans.
As he climbs down, the Zodiac lets off flares while the ship blows its horn in celebration.
Vescovo hugs the crew members one by one.

Later, when the initial celebration has died down and he has had time to decompress and shower, he sits alone in the ship’s galley with a large plate of spaghetti and a Diet Coke.
On the walls are vintage film posters for Mystery Submarine and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Surrounded by them, and considering what he has just done, Vescovo is in a reflective mood.

“I don’t know why I want to do this.
Why did Shackleton have a compulsion to go the South Pole?
Some people want to go to the blank spaces on the map, it’s just something deep inside of us,” he says.
“I remember reading Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Islandwhen I was a little kid.
I kept going back and looking at the map.
The scenes of exploration sang to me, and they still resonate with me.
As I grew up I never lost that.
I’m still that kid that always loved looking at maps and going there.

Links :

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ancient map puts China in its proper place

A closeup of China in the Selden Map.
Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

From AsiaTimes by Martin Laflamme

Author Hongping Annie Nie says the Selden map is a work of art – and nautically accurate

In September 1659, hundreds of boxes of books and manuscripts arrived at the University of Oxford.
They contained the personal library of John Selden (1584-1654), a constitutional lawyer and antiquarian and a pioneer of Oriental studies – a term that, however unfashionable it may have become elsewhere, continues to be honored in the name of Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies.

Selden had died in London five years earlier and bequeathed his voluminous collection, all 8,000 items, to the Bodleian Library.
It was then – and remains to this day – the single largest donation in the history of the university.

 John Selden. Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Tucked away amongst the lot was a map of China.
Although it was one of Selden’s most precious possessions, its origin is largely a mystery.
There is nothing in Selden’s will, nor anywhere else in his papers, that tells us how or from whom he procured it.
We do not know the identity of the cartographer, either, and only have circumstantial evidence about the time and place where he completed his work, perhaps in Java, very likely in the late 16th or early 17th century.

It is, however, a remarkable document, unlike any other that has come down to us.
For one thing, writes Hongping Annie Nie in her slim but richly illustrated book, China is squeezed into the upper left corner.

In all other Chinese maps of the time, the Middle Kingdom is a square and bulky presence, the most important visual component of the design.
Not here: the South China Sea lies at the center, with East and Southeast Asia given pride of place.
It is, Nie adds, “the first Chinese map that correctly shows the geographical relationships in the East Asia region.”

And yet, the pursuit of this accuracy does not appear to have been the cartographer’s main motive, at least not directly.

In 2013, Timothy Brook, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, published a detailed study of the Selden Map.
In his book, which is an ideal companion to Nie’s brief account, Brook explained how the map was produced.

The cartographer first plotted sea lanes.
To do so, he consulted “rutters” – route guides providing information on distances between ports, compass directions, times and places to tack at sea and so on.
These guides embodied hundreds of years of sailing experience, so the information they contained was very reliable.

Selden Map trading routes near China.
Image courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Only after committing that network to paper did the cartographer start sketching land contours, almost as an “afterthought,” in Brook’s words.
It is this technique that gave the map an appearance that is surprisingly accurate to the modern eye.

Scholars have proposed various dates for the creation of the Selden map, all falling between 1566 and 1621.
This is probably not a coincidence.
The latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed a period of rapid commercial expansion, which acted as a powerful stimulant to foreign trade.
Across Southeast Asia, Chinese merchants were a growing presence.

It had not always been thus.
In its early days, the dynasty was more inward-looking.
Border security, whether on land or at sea, was a paramount concern.
In 1370, only two years into his reign, the first Ming Emperor banned all foreign trade, with the exception of that conducted in the context of diplomatic missions – the tribute trade.

The zeal with which this policy was enforced varied over time, but it was not very successful: trade along the coast never stopped.
Worse, the policy tended to encourage smuggling and piracy.

Bowing to the inevitable, Ming authorities withdrew the prohibition in 1567.
This probably was not coincidental.
Two years earlier, in 1565, the first Spanish galleon had sailed to the Philippines from Acapulco, thereby proving the feasibility of a trade route across the pacific.

Ships laden with silver from Latin American mines soon followed.
They docked at Manila, where Chinese merchants awaited, ready to sell silk, damask, porcelain, jewels or any other luxury goods the Spaniards fancied.
In the 1540s, Nie notes, silver became China’s main currency.
Now the Spaniards were coming with mountains of it.
It was a hugely profitable trade for all involved.

For all its nautical accuracy – dozens of compass bearings were inked on its surface – it is unlikely the Selden map was used for navigational purposes.
At 1.58m by 0.96m, it is inconveniently large.

Besides, it was decorated with too much care to have been merely utilitarian.
Unlike European maps, which were printed, this one was painted by hand – and richly so.
The Great Wall is conspicuous, in bright yellow with sparkling red merlons.
The China it hems is dotted with craggy hills.
Flora were depicted with obvious care and positioned in the regions where they naturally grew.

 The Selden Map of China: A New Understanding of the Ming Dynasty (Hongping Annie Nie), published by the Bodleian Library (US$29.30)

The map is a beautiful work of art that was most likely commissioned by a rich merchant to decorate his home and show off his commercial acumen as the age of globalization dawned.

Back in Oxford, few could make sense of Selden’s map, to say nothing of the other Chinese manuscripts he legated to the university.
In the summer of 1687, Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), the keeper of the Bodleian Library, made a valiant attempt to learn the rudiments of the language and translate some of Selden’s material.

Hyde had the assistance of Shen Fuzong (ca. 1658-1691), a Jesuit convert and the first Chinese to travel to England, who sojourned in Oxford for six weeks.
Some of Hyde’s annotations, in Latin, are still visible next to the original inscriptions of the cartographer.

Soon after, though, people lost interest.
After spending some years on a wall in the Anatomy School, the map was put away, in a greatly diminished state, its significance forgotten, until it was rediscovered by an American scholar in 2008.

It has since been splendidly restored in a fitting tribute to Selden, whose passionate pursuit of knowledge had made him one of the greatest scholars of his age.

Links :

Monday, March 23, 2020

Living life at a distance

NASA runs fake space missions on Earth. These simulations — called analog missions — allow scientists to study what a long space mission would be like for the crew.
Some analog missions study the use of specialized technology or the effects of zero gravity on the body, but others focus primarily on psychological effects.
The HI-SEAS mission, or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, takes place near the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii and is designed to simulate living on Mars.
Crew members live in isolation for about 8 months and aren't allowed to stray further than a mile or two from their small, dome-shaped habitat.
Scientists study the impact this has on the crew's mental and emotional state.

From Slate by Kate Green

I spent four months pretending to live on Mars.
Here’s what I learned about staying sane and passing time.

In 2013, I packed a bag and moved into a geodesic dome where I lived with five other people, all of us pretending to be astronauts on a mission to Mars.
It was a strange time in my life, but NASA funded it: an isolation experiment called HI-SEAS on the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, where, for four months, our crew of six gave scientists our physical, psychological, and social health data in the hope that it might make a future trip to the red planet better for some hypothetical future crew.

The conditions of the experiment were such that we were cut off from family and friends with a 20-minute communication delay.
We had no fresh fruits or vegetables—only nonperishable foods.
And we couldn’t leave the dome unless we wore “spacesuits,” which were actually modified, oversize government surplus hazmat suits.
Little did I know how well the HI-SEAS experiment would prepare me for March 2020, Earth.

It can be maddening to be cooped up for months, as many already know: people with chronic illness, people with disabilities, those who are incarcerated, new mothers, graduate students, freelancers who work from home, and now people isolating themselves to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
This kind of isolation comes with significant psychosocial challenges.

Same goes for astronauts on a long duration mission.
So before sending them off on a 2½-year trip to Mars, NASA wants to understand what they’re up against and how to help them cope.
If these difficulties aren’t carefully considered in crew selection and mission design, any Mars-going effort could be for naught.
As Kim Binsted, professor at the University of Hawaii and head of HI-SEAS, has said, “If you think about a mission to Mars as being a system of systems, the human part of that system, if that breaks, can be just as disastrous as a rocket blowing up.”

Challenges include microstimuli that grow macro over time—the way your crewmate clears her throat every five minutes, for instance.
Frustrations continue with a crew-ground disconnect, where the crew loses faith in the ability of mission support to provide helpful or trustworthy information.
And then there’s boredom.
Boredom’s a big one.
It’s a strange torpor that can spur a person to action or give creative insights as well as lull them into an ever-deepening despair.

The fundamental difficulty of isolation is this: Humans are an adaptive species that thrives in changing environments.
“What isolation does is sort of remove that context of adaptation because when we’re isolated, we’re not … able to engage our environment in as many different ways,” says Tom Williams, element scientist for human factors and behavioral performance in the Human Research Program at NASA.
“So it sort of creates this barrier to allowing us to be that adaptive resilient human.”

One of the biggest differences between my simulated Mars mission and the isolation brought by measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 is the uncertainty.
The situation we all face now is rapidly changing as more people are asked to adjust their behaviors and restrict their movements, and no one knows for how long.
At the start of HI-SEAS, we knew the duration of the mission.
We were able to plan milestone celebrations and anticipate, without a doubt, the day we would return to Earth.
Right now, in our collective, scattered isolations, we aren’t so lucky.
Still, I believe that some of the approaches my crew and I took while isolated in that dome can apply to the current situation.
Perhaps some of these suggestions can ease the burden.

Make food special.
You’ve probably stocked up on some nonperishable goods.
All of our HI-SEAS food was shelf-stable, freeze-dried, or dehydrated, which actually allowed for many delicious meal possibilities.
(My crewmate Sian Proctor has a book and cooking videos that can give you an idea.) We experimented with new recipes and honored milestones and birthdays with multicourse dinners.
It really broke up the monotony.
Consider, if possible, novel, flavorful options that you might not normally eat as well as comfort foods.
Find a few new recipes.
Treat meals as a time to connect with others, savor a new experience, and find calm.


NASA recommends that astronauts keep a journal, which the agency can then use to learn about frustrations and help future spacefarers overcome them.
And, as many people on Earth already know, offloading stressful ruminations to the page can be a great relief.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a historic time.
You likely won’t regret keeping some kind of record—words, pictures, videos—of your day-to-day life even if it is just what you ate for breakfast, a to-do list, or exactly how one of your quarantine mates is getting on your nerves.

Make rituals

Twice a week, as a crew, we met for movie nights.
Sometimes it felt like a drag and sometimes the movie selections of my crewmates were not to my taste (The House Bunny was not my favorite), but it always felt good to have a consistent event that marked the time, something to look forward to.
Time is slippery in isolation.
The more you can fix it, the better.
I also found it helpful to keep my hands busy.
Crafting and building things can help locate attention in the present moment.

Go outside

I wish I had done this more, but my own projects, which involved reading, writing, and organizing the crew’s sleep data, were indoor activities.
Plus, it took multiple people and at least 10 minutes to properly suit up.
The suits were bulky and cumbersome, and the walkie-talkie headsets seemed to always be cutting out.
Still, after every hike over the red lava fields of Mauna Loa, hearing the basalt crunch under my boots, peering into the dark openings of caves, squinting up at the sky trying to imagine it as a dusty red rather than crisp blue, I felt so much better.
Plus, picking up and holding a rock is a great reminder of deep time.
Eons have preceded us and eons will follow, which is, to me, a comforting thought.
If at all possible, take a walk, breathe fresh air, and soak in the sun while keeping a safe and healthy distance from others.


Because Mars is very far away, and it can take up to 24 minutes to send data back to Earth, our communication was limited to asynchronous email conversations.
No FaceTime, no texting, but also no Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Kind of a relief, honestly.
I learned new ways to maintain my correspondences—daily emails, poems, and short video hellos—and it was such a critical part of maintaining and building relationships back home.
It will be equally important to stay in touch with friends and family isolated at a distance, but at least many of us share an internet that gives us the benefit of real-time interactions.
Already, virtual book clubs, performances, and coffee dates are happening all over the country.
Many classes, including the poetry workshop I teach at Columbia University, have moved online.
I now also have a grand plan to read War and Peace, spend more time with Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and maybe drop in on some drawing classes.
See how it feels to participate in some virtual events or online classes, or host one yourself.

Mix it up

Our crew scientist, Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, brought multiple biology experiments with her so that every couple of weeks, she’d have something new to focus on.
For our daily workouts, many of us used P90X, which offered built-in variety.
We also had an inflatable couch and chair so we could easily rearrange our common space.
Changing your environment is one way to interrupt boredom, so stagger all those projects you have hopes of completing, invite variation and change as an alternative to anxious uncertainty, and don’t be afraid to move your furniture, paint a wall, reorganize shelves, or make and hang new art.

Delight the senses

One thing that surprised me was how important scent was on our mission.
For the project’s main experiment, a food study, we took tests to determine how well we could identify odors.
The smell of fresh pineapple early in the mission made me surprisingly emotional, and later, a whiff of grass and then rubber from scratch-’n’-sniff (scientifically validated) booklets made me exceedingly wistful for life back on Earth.
Surround yourself with soft things, get flowers and plants while you can, smell essential oils and spices, watch strange movies, play your favorite video games, listen to music, take hot baths, stretch, take cold showers, remind yourself of your body.

Expect it to be hard

Even knowing the challenges of isolation and being somewhat temperamentally predisposed to dealing with them, I still couldn’t avoid them.
It was on Mars where I became intimate with my particular brand of boredom.
Before the mission, I presumed I was never bored, but what I learned was that I’m actually almost always bored, always looking for something new and interesting.
Over time with so much sameness, I slipped into a kind of low-arousal state that only mistaking a crewmate for an intruder shortly at one point snapped me out of.

When the isolation gets hard, and you feel frustration, annoyance, and boredom, try not to judge it or yourself too harshly.
Consider instead approaching it with curiosity like a scientist or an artist.
I came to HI-SEAS as a journalist and former scientist, but my experience inside that dome changed me.
In the years since, I’ve become a different kind of writer, one who spends more time with poetry and the associative, approaching ideas more obliquely now rather than straight on.
Be interested in your boredom and other difficult feelings.
Let them wash over you.
It’s possible that there’s something good waiting on the other side.

Remember your purpose

This one’s easy for astronauts, especially on a mission to Mars.
But our crew was working at a remove.
I must admit it took multistep mental contortions to convince myself that filling out all the daily surveys and enduring our own uncertainties—changes in experiment protocols, loss of electricity and plumbing, and sometimes confusing information from mission support—was important.
But when I did, it made a big difference.
Remembering that we were doing something that might be good for the future of human exploration and maybe even humanity kept me grounded when I wanted to be flying and let me fly when I felt heavy and stuck.
To be part of something historic, to do something potentially grand for others—it was remarkable how focusing on that was often enough.

And now here we are, so many of us staying at home, grappling with boredom, rolling with a rapidly changing situation, considering sustainable approaches, and trying to find calm amid it all.
It’s a mission none of us signed up for.
But still, it might be helpful to look at it like a mission with a very clear purpose and, when times get hard, hold onto that purpose.

Maybe, like me, you have the sense right now that we’re all traveling to an unexplored planet, some different version of Earth waiting to be revealed.
I believe my purpose on this journey is to do what I can to help keep a deadly virus from more seriously ravaging those in my community and beyond.
It will likely be uncomfortable and hard, and when it is, I’ll try to call back to this shared purpose and solidarity with others as often as possible.
It’s striking, I think, that through our forced isolation the true extent of our interconnectedness and reliance on one another is exposed.
Maybe it will help clear some paths to make all kinds of things better—both personally and socioeconomically—in the future.
We are all part of something historic and larger than ourselves.
At a time of great uncertainty, perhaps remembering this can be enough.

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