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When we wanted to study space, we built the International Space Station—a place where astronauts could live, work, and conduct long-term experiments without having to return to Earth.

What if we had something similar on the bottom of the ocean?

Fabien Cousteau, a renowned aquanaut, environmentalist, and documentary filmmaker (and grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau), has been envisioning exactly that. And Northeastern is helping to make it a reality.

“If it gets built, and I truly hope it does, it will be transformative,” says Mark Patterson, who is the associate dean for research and graduate affairs in Northeastern’s College of Science. “It really will be like the International Space Station at the bottom of the sea.”

The research station already has a name—Proteus, after an ancient Greek sea god—and a location—60 feet underwater, by a coral reef off the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. Although the designs are not set in stone, it is planned to be four times larger than any previous underwater habitat, with space for research labs, sleeping quarters, an underwater greenhouse, and a video production facility to livestream educational programming. Northeastern is one of several partners in the endeavor.

Patterson and Brian Helmuth, both professors of marine and environmental sciences based at the Coastal Sustainability Institute in Nahant, are advising on the scientific program for Proteus. The advantage of working from an underwater habitat, Patterson says, is that it gives researchers “the gift of time.”

“If you need to be out in the water column—making your measurements, collecting the weird organisms that are there, doing engineering tasks—and you’re operating from the surface, you don’t have the luxury of time,” Patterson says. “You’re on the clock the instant you hit the water.”

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