International Space Station of the Seas: Proteus

International Space Station of the Seas: Proteus

Fabien Cousteau had a dream about how people would live and work in the ocean. He thought it would be possible to stay under the waves for long periods of time by constructing underwater habitats that looked and felt like home instead of sealed submarine bubbles.

He said these living spaces would include a kitchen, work area, and sleeping quarters. Of course, there would also be windows to the outside world or fields of view. A hole in the bottom of the house would also act as a front door, allowing easy access in and out of the facility.

The Proteus project, a sea equivalent of the International Space Station, would often include aquanats, an astronaut’s equivalent in the ocean. This idea, which has been bubbling for a while, may soon begin to take shape. Proteus Ocean Group, a private company that will operate Proteus, has recently signed an engineering, procurement and construction contract with a company specializing in hyperbaric and pressure tank construction in the ocean environment. Much of what Proteus does in the context of the technologies it explores is similar to space technologies.

The first unit will be installed in a protected marine area off the island of Curaçao, in northern Venezuela, at a depth of about 18 metres. The research team is also looking for additional locations across Europe and the US for future stations; their goal is to create a network of stations. A 3D map of the seafloor around the general area where Proteus will be placed has already been completed.

“We created a 3D map underwater,” says Cousteau, grandson of the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. “But it wasn’t easy to do during COVID. We shared the maps with the Caribbean Foundation for Biodiversity Research and Management and the government of Curaçao.” The first phase of the engineering design is scheduled to begin in April, with the construction of the sections scheduled to begin either at the end of 2022 or at the beginning of 2023. If all goes as planned, Proteus is expected to be deployed underwater by the end of 2025, with a satellite station attached to the deeper base station. Parallel to this, a land-based mission control station will also be established.

Fabien Cousteau is in Curaçao for underwater mapping. Photo: Proteus Ocean Group
Fabien Cousteau is in Curaçao for underwater mapping. Photo: Proteus Ocean Group

To understand how such a facility could one day help researchers who might live there, it is important to grasp what distinguishes it from traditional ocean technologies such as a submarine. “It is very different from a submarine. Submarine is a bubble. The Proteus and deeper water station will technically not be a pressure vessel,” says Cousteau. “The ambient pressure inside will be the same as the outside pressure. In a pressurized tank, on the other hand, the pressure outside is different from the pressure inside.”

Cousteau likens this to taking a glass, turning it upside down and submerging it in water. When the glass is pushed against the water, an air bubble forms inside and the water does not go into the bubble because the pressures inside and outside the glass are balanced. Something like this is helpful for explorers who will live there because they don’t need to adjust for pressure differences inside and outside the Proteus when they leave to SCUBA dive.

What Proteus is promising is not a new idea. In fact, Cousteau’s grandfather was one of the first pioneers of underwater habitats in the 1960s. The U.S. Museum of Diving History estimates that more than 60 habitats have been made on the seafloor. But most of them are either abandoned or devastated by neglect. One of the last survivors is Aquarius, located in the Florida Keys island group of the USA, located at a depth of 18 meters and currently used to train astronauts and host research missions. Fabien Cousteau stayed at this reef-floor station for 31 days in 2014 and shared his insider impression of life under the waves with PopSci.

Some features of the last remaining underwater research station

In fact, Aquarius was a joint project of the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Navy. But after it was commissioned in 1986, it moved to Florida International University. Aquarius consists of a three-part system: a settlement containing the laboratory and living quarters, a life support buoy that provides air and communication between the settlement and the shore, and a 120-ton base that keeps the settlement on the seafloor thanks to its weight. In addition to scientific equipment, the laboratory includes computers, internet, telephones, radios and video communication devices connected to each other by network.

Aquarius Reef Base. Photo: NOAA National Ocean Service/Flickr
Aquarius Reef Base. Photo: NOAA National Ocean Service/Flickr

“An underwater lab gives us the ability to stay underwater for long periods of time,” says Cousteau. In this way, researchers can collect data non-stop. Also, “You learn to reach saturation,” adds Cousteau.

An ordinary scuba diver, descending to a depth of 18 meters, can only stay underwater for about an hour. Because rapid changes in pressure can cause dissolved gases in the body to form expanding bubbles, which can interfere with blood flow or cause other medical problems; If divers ascend too fast, they may experience a condition called a smash. This is why divers have to wait up to a day after their last dive before boarding the plane.

Saturation at depth allows the body to acclimate to multi-atmosphere pressure (corresponding to 18 meters of three atmospheres or three times the pressure at the surface, and residents constantly feel this new pressure) and stay underwater longer. When divers are ready to ascend, they undergo a depressurization process where the pressure around them is gradually returned to the pressure on land, so that the gases can safely leave their bodies.

“During our tenure with Aquarius in 2014, we were able to dive 8 to 12 hours per person per day thanks to this gift of time at the bottom of the sea,” says Cousteau. “We were able to do the scientific research that would take three years in 31 days. We wouldn’t be able to do it in such a short time if there was a ship stationed on the surface and the divers descended from here.”

Astronauts training at Aquarius Reef Base. Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr
Astronauts training at Aquarius Reef Base. Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

But Aquarius is 35 years old. “He’s a dinosaur,” Cousteau says. “It also has a very limited space. I was joking with the New Yorkers I was with that it was like living in a studio apartment with five other people.” The interior of Aquarius is 37 square meters and can accommodate 6 people. Cousteau plans the Proteus to be about 370 square meters and accommodate 12 people in the room.

Cousteau also wants to add some new features, such as a submarine docking station or hangar. “It’s like a garage with a car in it,” he says. “So we as aquanats can use this tool to go to places where it is impractical.” The garage can also be used to deploy autonomous underwater vehicles that will go and collect information around the Caribbean. These tools then return to Proteus for maintenance and downloading the data they collect.

Plan for Proteus

Cousteau says that Proteus will be modular like the International Space Station; In other words, it can be disassembled like a Lego set and reassembled with technological components developed over time. (But unlike the ISS, it will not be a closed facility.)

“With technologies that continue to evolve, we will be able to keep up with future demands,” says Cousteau. “You can continue to develop some external superstructures as well as internal infrastructure.”

Curaçao is an undersea mountain. The underwater topography has an average slope of 45 degrees. If the location is suitable, it could give Proteus access to a wide range of ecosystems, from coral reefs to the top of the twilight zone. “We want a place that allows for research but not too complicated from an engineering point of view. We also want to be close to where the mission control unit will be located,” says Cousteau. “We are working with the government of Curaçao and the Caribbean Foundation for Biodiversity Research and Management, the director of the protected marine area, to determine the conservation.”

Major components inherit some things from proven technologies of past habitats. Wet labs, pressurized decompression chambers (to prepare aquanats to resurface), a broadcast studio, a fishery garden, a larger sleeping area, and a land mission control station located Proteus at a deeper depth about 70 meters below the surface. There will be a cord connecting it to the satellite habitat.

This satellite habitat will be a heliox environment; that is, the breathing gas will consist of a mixture of helium and oxygen. Divers will need to undergo special training for these conditions. Cousteau will prepare a heating system with more efficient diving equipment for this living space. “It will be used for smaller groups to do much deeper sorts of research for specific missions,” Cousteau says. “If you’re saturating at 3 atmospheres, you’ll be able to descend to 70 meters for 2 hours without having to decompress before returning to Proteus.”

The onshore mission control facility will house infrastructure such as dry laboratories and health assessment rooms. It will also include power, cooling system, life support, fresh water and breathing air, along with a cord that gives Proteus a direct stream capacity of 16k. Proteus will host submerged secondary systems as backup, which will provide several weeks of support in case the cord breaks. The mission control unit will provide surface support through unmanned underwater vehicles (UAVs), submarines and boats that shuttle between land and Proteus.

Another important issue is food and other facilities. Chemistry works differently at three atmospheres of pressure. Even soap at this pressure can be toxic. Add to this that there is no open flame or any other source of ignitable heat for cooking because oxygen is present in air that is exhaled under pressure. Proteus can borrow various innovations and solutions from space technology at this point.

Proteus is a tool that could allow researchers to perform experiments such as selectively matching coral families, observing climate change-related issues or weather patterns, deploying sensor arrays to count microplastic concentrations in the water column in real time, studying a new species, or analyzing samples’ chemical compositions in situ. will host a range of diving equipment; moreover, all of them can be carried out in the underwater laboratory without having to carry them over long distances.

A virtual animation of Proteus. Preliminary project: Yves Behar and fuseproject
A virtual animation of Proteus. Preliminary project: Yves Behar and fuseproject

Cousteau aims to power Proteus from renewable energy. “I would love to be able to look at other basic sources of power generation besides wind and solar,” he says. “For example, thermal energy conversion in the ocean, which is a proven technology but has not yet been applied on a large scale.”

Mirjam Fürth, a professor of ocean engineering at Texas A&M University, thinks Proteus can deliver on what it promises once its finances are settled. But it won’t be cheap: Forbes reports that Proteus will require $135 million to build. Proteus receives private funding as well as support from Fabien Cousteau’s nonprofit Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center.

But Fürth notes that there may be certain technical challenges scaling up that still need to be stress-tested. One of the simplest questions on this subject is how to enter and exit the underwater house. For example, will the submarine they plan enter through a giant underwater hole or through an airtight chamber? Also, how will food and other supplies be delivered to residents?

“I think that’s why we haven’t seen large-scale underwater habitats. Because when you increase the extent of that complexity, a lot of these things don’t go linear,” says Fürth. “Building something at a depth of 18 meters is not complicated, but having a large group of people there for a long time, some of whom may not be experts; That’s something we haven’t seen before, and that’s the real issue they’re going to have to get over.”

Other factors to take into account include potential damage from hurricanes and underwater seismic activity. (Aquarius’ life support buoy was damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017). Having a lanyard as opposed to a buoy is “much safer in inclement weather,” says Fürth. But it can be more expensive.

Despite these considerations, Fürth believes that the materials and technologies that could shape Proteus have been available for some time. Moreover, it is not the only company interested in such a project. There is a separate project called SeaOrbital, which is working on a spaceship lab floating in the ocean. The main obstacle faced by these initiatives is cost.

“I think that’s why it’s happening now,” says Fürth; that is, at a time when they can benefit from this new era of discovery and the rise of the blue economy. The “blue economy” is a term that sums up the growing interest in aquaculture (seaweed, shellfish and more), wave energy and wind energy converters, and desalination technology.

“Technology for robots has definitely taken off in the last decade, and the leap in marine applications has taken place in just a few years,” adds Fürth. “Costs have dropped significantly.”

“The impetus provided by the blue economy made people realize that there might be something more than traditional fishing here,” says Fürth. “I think that’s part of it. It’s also “more accessible to humans” to visit an alien world under the sea rather than in space in this new era of exploration.

Author: Charlotte Hu/Popular Science



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