Underwater Robot Test

By Katy B. Jones, Field Producer

blog post photo

In a one hour program, there is always a lot of great footage that the audience doesn’t get to see. We’ve been working on “Explorer: Journey to an Alien Moon” off and on since 2008, when I was sent to film Stone Aerospace’s first underwater test of the robot Endurance. There is literally hundreds of hours of footage which we had to trim, tweak, and twist into a great story. It is always with a heavy heart and a sigh of regret that some of our favorite footage has to hit the cutting room floor along the way.

One of my favorite shoots that doesn’t appear in the program occurred on a boat with a scientific team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In the fall of 2009, Chris German and Andy Bowen led a scientific boat expedition to the Cayman Trough to search for underwater hydrothermal vents using an AUV (automated underwater vehicle) robot named Nereus.

Video: Expedition to Jupiter’s Moon

Nereus is a cheerful, yellow-bodied explorer built to withstand deep underwater pressure and maintain buoyancy over 6,000 feet below the ocean. If you’ve ever dived to the bottom of a ten-foot pool and felt your ears squeeze, you can imagine what 600 times that pressure might feel like! It’s not something a human can withstand!

We were really pumped about travelling along on this voyage. A robot explorer built to explore hydrothermal vents – awesome stuff for a show about exploring Europa. Hydrothermal vents produce chemical energy, and an amazing host of diverse sea creatures found at these vent sites depend upon it. There won’t be much solar energy available on Europa – so there won’t be plants or other life forms that we are used to on Earth. There will have to be a chemical source of energy and the more we can understand about Earth-life that uses chemical energy, the better we can plan for discoveries on Europa.

Our full crew, director Mark Mannucci, cameraman Ari Haberberg, sound recordist Brian Albirtton and I stayed with the crew for three days. Unfortunately, science doesn’t always keep a TV schedule. Three days was all we could afford to shoot, and it takes time to find these vents. We got great footage of the scientific preparations, but there were no vents discovered on our time aboard. The crew went back to shore via tugboat.

We were so determined to make it work, that I stayed aboard the boat after the crew had to leave. I had already planned on extending my stay in Grand Cayman to take some personal leave, so it didn’t cost any more for me to stay on the scientific vessel until the end of the expedition. For a science groupie like myself, the chance to wander around on a boat with a camera asking some of the greatest minds in the world what they were doing and thinking was a thrilling way to spend some personal time. I got an air mattress on the floor to bunk with the female scientists, although a lot of the time, I’d sleep in the ship’s galley so I wouldn’t miss anything.

Unfortunately, the weather turned really choppy during the expedition, which made deploying Nereus dangerous. I guess weather doesn’t understand a TV schedule either. The vessel stayed at sea as long as possible, and the scientists deployed other test methods to try to identify a vent site. And just when they were pretty sure they knew where one was, the weather got really nasty, and we were forced to return to Grand Cayman early.

We tried to make the footage work in the film, but without the vent site and cool creatures that might tell us new stuff about Europa, it just didn’t work as well as we had hoped. With a very heavy heart and sigh of regret, the footage hit the editing room floor.

Don’t miss the all-new episode of Explorer, Journey to an Alien Moon, Tuesday April 20 at 10P et/pt.