Ved Chirayath: Unearthing a world under the waves

National Geographic Explorer Ved Chirayath is applying space exploration technology to marine systems in an effort to expose life on Earth – and help protect it.

National Geographic Explorer Ved Chirayath has contemplated life outside of Earth since he can remember. By five years old, he was determined to work for NASA. His steps were carefully plotted: study astrophysics, continue his education in Russia, and earn a graduate degree from Stanford University. And though he was just a boy when he first ideated the ambitious plans, he has managed to achieve it all.

 Now, with a trail of astronomy achievements under his belt, Chirayath, a researcher, photographer, and inventor, is putting a spin on his childhood dreams by redirecting his focus from the skies to Earth’s ocean.

“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at space, and there's just nothing that compares to the beauty and the wonder that is under the sea,” Chirayath says, adding that of the new worlds he’s hoped to find “ours is the coolest one I can see to the edge of our solar system.”  

While collective human interest seems to have largely favored the stars, Chirayath sees the urgency in exploring planet Earth.“We have the ability to see and even redirect a potential asteroid collision,” he goes on, “but there’s a separate cataclysmic, extinction-level event happening now, and that’s climate change.”

Nature’s ability to survive under extreme conditions is evident, Chirayath points out. “I think the question that’s now coming in front of our species is ‘will humans be part of the future of life on Earth?'” 

His conviction to protect the planet came after years spent in search of life elsewhere. Library texts and astronomy club peers helped him engineer his own telescopes, which, through various trials, grew larger in size. By the time he was 16, Chirayath had discovered a planet, intentionally using only amateur equipment available to the average stargazer–a consumer digital camera, which he modified with the correct sensitivity, strapped to a telescope. 

By tracking changes in the brightness of a star that the planet orbited, Chirayath would prove he had indeed detected something new outside the atmosphere, roughly one-and-a-half times the size of Jupiter and traveling fast. This discovery landed Chirayath a scholarship for the next phase of living out his childhood ambitions, continuing his studies in Russia. 

While earning his undergraduate degree in particle physics in Moscow, he worked as a fashion photographer for Vogue. It was a way “to do something different and help pay the bills,” Chirayath laughs, and since, his photography has splashed the pages of the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Elle.  

He went on to pursue his graduate studies in aeronautics and astronautics, during which he built an instrument capable of flying on electric fields, inspired by aircrafts seen on "Star Trek." 

Blending his interest in photography and space technology, Chirayath directed his lens to the cosmos, and eventually, the ocean floor.

“I got into astronomy imaging, and that was incredibly rewarding for me because it’s like getting the chance to look into the sea, but without all of the challenges of the water,” he explains. 

Through a decade-long career at NASA, Chirayath has directed the Laboratory for Advanced Sensing (LAS) at the space research giant’s Ames Center in California’s Silicon Valley. His focus has been on designing the next generation of sensing technologies to better understand this world and explore the universe beyond. This led to two major inventions: an instrument called a FluidCam, capable of seeing through ocean waves clearly in a process called fluid lensing and its more powerful successor, which Chirayath named MiDAR. 

He is currently the director of the Aircraft Center for Earth Studies at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science where they use next-generation scientific platforms to explore the Earth’s atmosphere as well as ocean systems. 

Since 2012, Chirayath has transitioned from searching for life elsewhere in the universe to uncovering and protecting marine ecosystems on Earth. The shift, he says, he owes in part to meeting sea exploration pioneer and fellow National Geographic Explorer, Sylvia Earle.

“She pulled me aside in the way that she does and she said, ‘you can take all of your talents and devote them to space. You can also devote them to protecting Earth, and here’s why you should do it,’” Chirayath remembers.  

“I still feel like I’m doing the same science. You’re looking at dark objects and it just happens to be the telescope is no longer pointing up, it’s pointing down,” he laughs.

But the experience is dramatically different. Moving away from “doing astronomy on a cold mountaintop alone to being surrounded by life in the water” solidified Chirayath’s decision to shift gears.

Rather than look for potential life in space, he recognized the abundance of it right in front of him–begging to be stewarded.  

He’s currently using drones capable of seeing through waves, applying sensing technologies he designated for space, to map and photograph shallow marine systems in hopes of inspiring appreciation for seldom-seen lifeforms and an urgency to protect them. 

Using the FluidCam, Chirayath has been able to map and photograph the ocean up to 45 feet deep. With around a dozen surveying missions conducted using the technology, Chirayath estimates he’s mapped around 200 square kilometers of shallow ocean ecosystems and has high hopes for MiDAR to go deeper and further in the future.

These ocean missions also inform NeMO-Net, a video game he created in which players help NASA classify coral reefs and other shallow marine environments all over the world. He’s interested in using his technology to quantify the amount of microplastics in the ocean, identify where they’re concentrated, and help put a stop to their flow. 

“It’s not entirely hopeless,” he says, marveling at nature’s resilience. 

Through his expeditions, Chirayath has found everything from a diver’s rope to lost cell phones. “Anything you can imagine,” he says, can end up at the bottom of the ocean. But one of his fondest memories took place closer to the surface. 

While diving in Samoa’s seas he recalls repeat visits by a baby octopus. “Every day it would kind of play hide and seek and follow me around and you could just see its intelligence,” he remembers.

“It would come say hello, then sit and go and watch for a while, then move a little bit and play a game with me. I just thought that feeling, that sense of connection with another life form, that only exists on Earth,” he says.

Appreciation for the planet and its inhabitants, Chirayath explains, is key in inspiring care for it. 

“I wish everyone had the chance to go to space so you can see how dependent you are on oxygen, water, the fruit that miraculously grows on trees. The minute you get to another planet, you see this is what it could be like if you don’t preserve things,” he urges. 

Ultimately, he’s invested in looking at life, in all of its forms whether on Earth or beyond. And though life may be lurking in outer space, he admits it could be very far and very rare. While exploration across the universe continues, he says there are plenty of wonders at humans’ feet. 

“To better understand other life on Earth makes the whole universe seem a little bit smaller, more tangible, and connected.” 

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

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