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April 23, 2012

NOAA exploration command center opens at MSU at Stennis

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What mysteries lie in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico? The Gulf’s hidden world is being revealed live and in high definition this month at Stennis Space Center thanks to a long-standing partnership between Mississippi State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The new MSU Science and Technology Center at Stennis is now home to the only NOAA Exploration Command Center in the Southeast. An exploration command center is a state-of-the-art communication hub that provides a two-way communication system that allows scientists on research vessels at sea to collaborate with scientists on shore as they all view live, high-definition video streams of secrets of the sea.

The MSU High Performance Computing Collaboratory and NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center, a division of NOAA’s National Oceanographic Data Center, provided technical support for the team effort that made this exploration command center possible.

The Northern Gulf Institute, a NOAA cooperative institute led by MSU, is participating with NOAA’s Office Ocean Exploration and Research to coordinate the first use at Stennis of this cutting-edge technology as NOAA exploration flagship Okeanos Explorer explores the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico through the month.

“The MSU Science and Technology Center at Stennis is the perfect place to house the new NOAA Exploration Command Center,” said Steve Ashby, associate director of the Northern Gulf Institute. “Stennis is known for innovative research and collaboration among its agencies. We were able to set up the exploration command center very quickly because MSU and NOAA work well together here. This is a good example of the kind of cooperation that exists at Stennis.”

The center at Stennis is only the seventh in the United States. The idea behind NOAA Exploration Command Centers began in 2003 when NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research partnered with Robert Ballard, who envisioned scientists participating in ocean exploration through “telepresence technology.” This technology, now used in the Exploration Command Centers, allows the scientists aboard exploration vessels to be in constant contact with shore-based scientists through a combination of high-definition cameras, remotely operated underwater vehicles and state-of-the-art networking including an Internet-enabled intercom system for real-time voice communication as the ship’s remotely operated vehicles send a continuous stream of live video and data.

“The key is that this method of communication offers a unique, real-time data exchange that enables the shipboard science party to 'reach back' to scientists on shore to take advantage of a broader range of expertise,” said Russell Beard, director of NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center.

Scientists from across the region are traveling to Stennis to participate in the current expedition of NOAA’s exploration flagship, the Okeanos Explorer, in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Okeanos Explorer is the only ship in the NOAA fleet able to utilize telepresence, and has been providing live images from the seafloor over satellite and high-speed Internet. The public can watch live as the Okeanos explores the Gulf of Mexico depths by visiting http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/media/exstream/exstream_04.html.

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