NASA returns to Aquarius with an all-female crew

An all-female astronaut crew descended on Aquarius today for a 10-day training mission to prepare for future deep space missions – and assist with ocean conservation at the same time.

NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) is the 23rd in the history of the FIU Medina Aquarius Program but the first since Hurricane Irma idled the world’s only undersea research laboratory in 2017. NEEMO 23 is focusing on exploration spacewalks and training for missions to the moon and Mars. As an analogue for future planetary science concepts and strategies, the crew will also install a coral nursery for a research initiative led by FIU marine sciences associate professor Mauricio Rodriguez-Lanetty. The mission is being live-streamed online.

The NEEMO crew is led by Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency. She currently holds the record for the most time in space for a European – 200 days – as part of International Space Station Expeditions 42 and 43. She is joined by NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins, Florida Atlantic University research professor Shirley Pomponi and Csilla Ari D-Agostino, a research assistant professor from the University of South Florida.

A NASA astronaut prepares to make the swim to Aquarius for a NEEMO training mission.

The crew of aquanauts will install coral nursery trees near Aquarius that are populated by two species of coral listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Researchers from Lanetty’s Integrative Marine Genomics and Symbiosis (IMaGeS) Lab will spend the next four years studying the effects of nearby fish communities on the composition, function and health of the corals and their interactions with assemblages of microorganisms and algae in the area.

“The results of this study will help to inform conservation and restoration efforts in the Florida Keys and beyond,” said Riley Hatch, an FIU graduate student in Marine Sciences and the lead researcher from Lanetty’s IMaGeS Lab for the project.

After the study concludes, the corals will be planted on surrounding reefs to improve the genetic variation in the area and increase coral presence in this critical ecosystem.

It is not the first time Lanetty and his students have worked with NASA to advance coral conservation initiatives. His lab has partnered with NASA on multiple NEEMO missions in which the astronauts-turned-aquanauts provided in-the-water research support during their training missions. The Medina Aquarius Program is a signature component of coastal oceans research in the FIU Institute of Water and Environment in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education.

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