Chasing Satellites With Jacques Cousteau
by Laura Rocchio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
July 23, 2020
Leaving from Nassau on a Tuesday night in August 1975, Jacques Cousteau and his team set out on the Calypso for a three-week expedition designed to help NASA determine if the young Landsat satellite mission could measure the depth of shallow ocean waters.
Jacques Cousteau and his team of expert divers were a key part of the success of the 1975 NASA-Cousteau Bathymetry Experiment. In this photo from left to right: Bernard Delemotte, Chief Diver; Henri Garcia; Jean-Jérome Carcopin, and Jacques Cousteau. (Courtesy photo by The Cousteau Society)
For days, the Calypso played leapfrog with the Landsat 1 and 2 satellites in the waters between the Bahamas and Florida. Each night, it sailed 90 nautical miles to be in position for the morning overpass of the satellite.
Ultimately, research done on the trip determined that in clear waters, with a bright seafloor, depths up to 22 meters (72 feet) could be measured by Landsat.
The primary test site for the expedition was just west of the Berry Islands on the northern edge of the Great Bahama Bank. The location was chosen as the prime testing site because it gradually changed depth from one meter to deep ocean in a short north-south span (25 nautical miles). This natural-color Landsat 8 image acquired on March 23, 2019, shows where the northern Great Bahama Bank meets the deep ocean. (Image by NASA/USGS Landsat)
This revelation gave birth to the field of satellite-derived bathymetry and enabled charts in clear water areas around the world to be revised, helping sailing vessels and deep-drafted supertankers avoid running aground on hazardous shoals or seamounts.
“It was a tremendous example of how modern tools of scientists can be put together to get a better understanding of this globe we live on,” the Deputy NASA Administrator, George Low, said of the joint Cousteau-NASA expedition in a 1976 interview.
But it couldn’t have happened without the world’s most famous aquanaut, his team of expert divers, and the Calypso.
Astronauts and Aquanauts Together
The ocean’s vastness made Cousteau an early supporter of satellite remote sensing.
Cousteau, by then a decades-long oceanographer, was keenly aware that ocean monitoring from above would be necessary to understand the ocean as part of the interconnected Earth system and to raise the awareness requisite for protecting the sea. There was a growing recognition in the 1970s that helping the planet required understanding the planet.
“Everything that happens is demonstrating the need for space technology applied to the ocean,” Cousteau said during a 1976 interview at NASA Headquarters.
George Low, the Deputy NASA Administrator, himself a recreational diver, connected Jacques Cousteau with former Apollo 9 and Skylab astronaut Russell Schweickart. Schweickart was heading up NASA’s User Services division and both he and Cousteau were looking for ways to advance Earth science.
At the time, it was theorized that the new Landsat satellites might be useful for measuring shallow ocean waters. New deep-drafted supertankers were carrying crude oil around the globe, and to avoid environmental catastrophes it had become important to know where waters in shipping lanes were less than 65 feet (20 meters).
For this experiment, Landsat data was downlinked to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where it was processed into depth contour data. This was uplinked to the Applications Technology Satellite-3 (ATS-3) and then sent via Very High Frequency (VHF) relay to a VHF receiver system that had been installed on the Calypso for an earlier 1974 experiment in the Gulf of Mexico. (Image credit: NA)
To establish if Landsat could accurately measure ocean depth from space, simultaneous measurements from ships, divers and the satellite were needed.
Schweickart knew a coordinated bathymetry expedition was an essential step. He had honed his diving expertise while training for his Skylab mission in NASA’s water immersion facility and was enthusiastic about scuba work. Teaming with Cousteau was a natural fit.
An elaborate experiment was designed to determine definitively if multispectral data from the Landsat satellites could be used to calculate water depth. The clear waters of the Bahamas and coastal Florida were selected as the test site.
The experiment design involved two research vessels, the Calypso and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab’s Beadonyan, being in position, or “on station,” when the Landsat 1 and 2 satellites went overhead on eight different days (four consecutive days on each of two weeks).
The overall concept was simple: the research ships would use their fathometers to measure water depth at the exact same time that the satellite flew overhead and then those measurements would be compared (the simultaneous measurements eliminated any environmental or atmospheric differences that could have complicated comparisons). But realizing that plan took extraordinary coordination.
A detail from the planning map used for the 1975 NASA-Cousteau Bathymetry Experiment showing the Berry Islands. The hatched lines show the location of Landsat scene edges. (Image by NASA)
As the Landsat satellite flew overhead, Cousteau and his team of divers made a series of carefully timed measurements of water clarity, light transmission through the water column, and bottom reflectivity. This was done both near the Calypso and at two sites 60 meters from the Calypso using small motorized Zodiac rigid inflatable boats.
To make the light transmission measurements, two teams of divers had to use a submarine photometer to measure light at the water’s surface, one meter under the water and in 5-meter increments to the bottom (down to 20 meters).
The divers had to hold the photometer in a fixed position looking up and cycle through four different measurements. They also used specially filtered underwater cameras to measure bottom reflectivity (assisted by gray cards for reference). Everything was carefully timed. Schweickart and President Gerald Ford’s son Jack helped with these underwater measurements.
To make the precision measurements, the skill of these divers – including Cousteau’s chief diver, Bernard Delemotte – was essential.
“I was in charge of the divers,” Delemotte explained in a recent interview. “We were very convinced that we could do serious work together [with NASA].”
Before the satellite overpass, the Calypso and Beayondan were in position, anchored side-by-side, and ready to make all specified measurements.
“Two small Zodiacs left from the Calypso just before the satellite passage,” Delemotte recalls.
The Zodiacs stationed themselves 200 feet (60 meters) from the Calypso, and at the moment that the satellite was overhead someone on the Calypso would call to the divers through the portable VHF radio: “Go now!”
The divers would then start the series of prescribed measurements.
Using these measurements, scientists developed mathematical models describing the relationship between the satellite data and water depth, accounting for how far the light could travel through water, and how reflective the ocean floor was.
“Particular thanks” was given to Cousteau’s team of divers in the experiment’s final report “for their dedication and expertise in the underwater phases of the experiment, without which, measurements of key experimental parameters could not have been made.”
The diving prowess of Cousteau, Delemotte, and the Calypso crew added inextricably to the realm of satellite-derived bathymetry. Because of data collected during the NASA-Cousteau expedition, charts in clear water areas around the world were updated, making sea navigation safer. It was the precision measurements made by Delemotte and Cousteau’s team of divers that made bathymetry calculations for those chart updates possible.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)