By Alison Gold // NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MARYLAND //
NASA’s Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) relies on two aircraft, 17 remote-controlled vehicles, a ship and dozens of drifting instruments to make its detailed study of ocean eddies, currents and whirlpools. The researchers aim to assess how these small, high-energy ocean events contribute to circulation and heat exchange in the upper ocean, and how oceans affect climate change. The tools are stationed in a 7,800 square mile (roughly 20,200 square km) area west of San Francisco Bay, which the researchers call the “S-MODE Polygon.”
But one of the mission’s most critical tools, its control center, is not on site. The control center is a virtual daily meeting where up to 40 scientists gather to share new data, check in on the mission’s assets and plan where to maneuver their instruments and vehicles to capture the most useful measurements.
The S-MODE researchers are studying sub-mesoscale ocean processes like eddies – swirling pockets of ocean water that stretch about 6.2 miles or 10 kilometers in distance and often last for only a few days. Because eddies are relatively small and quick-fading, they can be challenging to study. Opportunities to study these processes often spring up with little warning. To study these events, the S-MODE team needs to be able to move their vehicles around quickly and strategically within the polygon.
For instance, one of the airborne instruments may spot an eddie or whirlpool developing. The scientists may then decide which water measurements they would like to gather, and agree to send the appropriate mission vehicles out to the location of interest. The scientists discuss such decisions at control center meetings.
During the call, representatives for each of the assets begin by providing their status updates.
“First, we review the data our assets are seeing in the field that day or the day before, and then decide what is the interesting feature that we want to study,” said Dragana Perkovic-Martin, principal investigator for DopplerScatt, one of S-MODE’s airborne instruments, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Based on that decision, we determine which assets we need in that spot and position them in the right area.”
The control center was originally going to be hosted in-person at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
“The idea was for a group of us to work together there to examine the conditions and the data and to update the plan as things unfolded,” said Tom Farrar, S-MODE Principal Investigator and a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts. As COVID-19 cases surged in late summer 2021, the team decided to shift to a virtual format. Now, the only people who are in the field are those who cannot complete their work remotely, like those flying the planes or collecting measurements aboard the ship.
All of the scientists involved in S-MODE have done traditional field deployments before, Perkovic-Martin said. But few have had experience coordinating an expedition from a virtual control center. The group has adapted quickly with the help of online platforms including Slack, WebEx, email, and Zoom.
“The control center works in much the same way as originally envisioned, with a group of people trying to take in as much information about what is happening to make decisions about the plan,” Farrar said.
One of the S-MODE Deputy Principal Investigators, Professor Eric D’Asaro of the University of Washington, leads control center meetings, with the goal of ending each meeting with an updated plan for the next few days.
“We have benefitted a lot from Eric’s enthusiasm, and his experience in other large field campaigns,” Farrar said. “We have a great team of experts and specialists, and I’m really excited about the coordinated dataset the team is collecting.”