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Nanaimo robotics company teams up with NASA

Darlene Lim, NASA scientist and project leader, left, and Robin Gang Li, Seamor Marine president, share a joke with Pat Johnston, mechanical design engineer for Seamor Marine, while he prepares an ROV prior to NASA sea trials of tracking and communication systems on April 14. - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
Darlene Lim, NASA scientist and project leader, left, and Robin Gang Li, Seamor Marine president, share a joke with Pat Johnston, mechanical design engineer for Seamor Marine, while he prepares an ROV prior to NASA sea trials of tracking and communication systems on April 14.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

Scientists and engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have teamed up with Nanaimo-based underwater robotics firm Seamor Marine on an exploration project that could one day play a role in future space exploration missions.

To study the potential for life on other planets, you need to learn from examples close at hand. Pavilion Lake, located about halfway between Lillooet and Cache Creek, is likely the only place in the world that is home to several types of microbialites – stone structures created in water by micro-organisms that represent some of our planet’s earliest known life forms dating back 2.5 billion years.

The NASA team was in Nanaimo last week preparing for work at Pavilion Lake.

“We’re here for what’s called an operational readiness test,” said Darlene Lim, an aquatics scientist based at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Palo Alto, Calif., and Pavilion Lake project leader. “It’s a chance for us to test our equipment prior to our formal deployment that we have in June.”

To search for life on other planets, NASA relies on the organization’s Earth sciences community and programs, such as the Pavilion Lake Project, which started in 2004 as a small-scale science project to gather information about why the lake supports microbialites. The program expanded to a mapping expedition to determine the extent and variety of the structures, followed by a third phase when scientists focus on the lifeforms that create the structures.

Life’s earliest remnants on Earth are found as stromatolites – ancient rock formations of layered microbialites. Finding similar structures on other planets means they once supported life, or possibly still do.

“We can’t go back in time to figure out how those bacteria built those structures, but we can look at modern analogues or comparison points to understand the physical, chemical and biological means by which these structures are built,” Lim said.

This year scientists will study how modern microbialites develop, their relationship to light and depth, plus other physical properties mapped out during previous project phases.

Seamor Marine’s remotely operated vehicles will support divers as robotic assistants and, in what NASA calls a robotic precursor mission, fly with divers over the research work sites to help the divers and land based operators maintain a physical perspective of the size of the project.

Communications and tracking systems the NASA team has plugged onto the Seamor ROVs is what is being tested in Nanaimo harbour this week, with help from the Nanaimo Port Authority, which is lending a boat and crew trained on the Port Authority’s own Seamor Marine ROV.

Seamor Marine produces a variety of ROV models and accessories, which are sold around the world for industrial, research and exploratory applications.

Terry Knight, co-founder and former CEO of Inuktun services, who now works for Seamor Marine as a consultant and marketing associate, said people in the technology world know each other from years of collaborating on projects, which is how Seamor got involved in Pavilion Lake.

“Last year a couple friends of ours came up and on their way by they stopped here to have a visit and said, ‘Oh, can we borrow one of those?’ and so they carted Seamor up there with them and used it up there last year on the project,” Knight said.

Lim said it’s fortunate for Canadians and for science that the B.C. government has protected Pavilion lake. One of the things the scientists will be studying is why microbialites don’t grow in lakes in the area other than Pavilion and nearby Kelly Lake.

“Everything we do underwater, from the science, the actual act of doing the science to the precursor robotic mission, to the robotic assistant role of the Seamor ROV, has a very direct line of sight to human exploration in the future, whether that’s on the moon or if it’s on an asteroid or the moons of Mars or Mars itself,” Lim said.

To learn more, please visit www.pavilionlake.com.

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