What did the oceanographer say to the astronaut? Scientists got a chance to find out today, as a researcher on board the Alvin submersible placed a 253-kilometer long-distance call to the International Space Station. The call--the first from deep sea to space--doesn't break any new scientific ground, but it could pave the way for future interplanetary communication.
The idea for the chat originated quite a while ago from a conversation between astronaut Suni Williams, who is now in the middle of a 6-month stint on the space station, and her sister, Dina Pandya, a Web designer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts. Both liked the notion of having Williams talk with the Alvin crew, especially given the similar challenges of sea and space exploration.
The technical details for making such a call have been in place for years. The three-person crew aboard the Alvin--submerged 2.5 kilometers below the East Pacific--communicates to the surface ship Atlantis via acoustic transponders, a type of underwater telephone. The phone on Atlantis is in turn connected to a satellite phone, which can buzz anyone on shore. To complete the sea-to-space link, scientists merely needed to have Atlantis call the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where a high-powered dish transmitter speaks directly with the space station.
The hard part turned out to be coordinating Williams' schedule with that of Alvin crewmember Tim Shank, a WHOI biologist. Science and engineering operations take priority, and sea surface conditions determine whether the submersible deploys as scheduled. Still, Michael Carlowicz, WHOI communications coordinator for the call, said Shank was "giddy" when he learned of the plan before he left for sea.
The call itself went smoothly. After exchanging greetings, Williams noted that the space station was currently hovering over the coast of Chili and Argentina. "We're looking at the ocean hoping you're having a good time down there," she said. Later, Williams asked if Shank had any interest in switching jobs. "I'd love to see what it's like on the ocean floor," she said. "How about coming up here for awhile?" To which Shank replied: "Anytime."
And what of the phone bill? It's not as astronomical as you'd expect. Shank says that the bulk of cost for the approximately 30-minute call comes from using the Iridium satellite, which runs 22 cents per minute. Getting the researchers to their respective locations, he says, was the expensive part.
The record for a long-distance call still belongs to the Apollo astronauts, who reached out and touched Houston from 384,400 kilometers away. Nevertheless, "it's very exciting to the have the space program and the seafloor program directly talking to each other in this basic way," says ocean seismologist Maya Tolstoy of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. "There is so much that can be learned at the seafloor that is directly applicable to space exploration, and in particular looking for life elsewhere in our solar system."
Astrobiologists too are enthused about today's chat. "Anytime that you can communicate with people off of the planet and when you have to do it through three different media: water, air, and vacuum--it's an astonishing accomplishment," says astrobiologist Richard Shand of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Such conversations between astronomers and Earth-bound scientists, he says, are critical in the search for possible life elsewhere in the solar system.
Not bad, for what still amounts--in cosmic terms--to a local call.