Anchored 60 feet below the Atlantic Ocean just off Key Largo,Fla., the Aquarius undersea habitat is serving as a outpost for an international astronaut crew, one of the world’s foremost experts on Martian geology and a NASA support team focused on the challenges facing a future mission to an asteroid.
This year’s 15th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project got underway on Thursday. The 13-day exercise is the first NEEMO asteroid analog mission. For many of the engineers involved, the undersea mission will build on this year’s NASA Desert Rats campaign. Desert Rats also examined the challenges of exploring small planetary bodies on a rugged patch of terrain in northern Arizona in late August and September.
Aquarius, a space station sized module owned by NOAA and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, adds an important dimension: the buoyant waters which mimic the low gravity conditions of an asteroid and a stretch of coral reef that offers a source of scientific inquiry for the asteroid analogue.
NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, the veteran of a 5 1/2 month mission to the International Space Station in 2010, leads the undersea crew that includes Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi; Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques; and Steven Squyres, the Cornell University planetary geologist who serves as the principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Click here for a live web cast of NEEMO 15 activities and links to follow along and submit questions to the participants through social media. Here’s a schedule of educational and news media events intended for webcast.
The aquanauts have already carried out spacewalks and other activities that may help planners prepare for a future mission to an asteroid, the first step in a strategy for the eventual U. S. led international exploration of Mars.
A month’s long round trip journey to an asteroid is about more than big rockets and a spacecraft to house astronauts.
Once they reach their destinations, human explorers will face the challenge of anchoring themselves and their equipment to a rocky body with minimal gravity — less pull even than the Apollo astronauts confronted as they stepped to the surface the moon.
Then, there the issues of long distance communications; habitability; and efficiently carrying out scientific activities during spacewalks.
Walker’s team is examining several mobility strategies including the use of excursion lines, hand over hand tethers, a deployable robot arm with an astronaut on the tip and jet packs.
The NEEMO team will incorporate a 50 second delay into communications to and from Mission Control to simulate the latency of working with explorers on an asteroid millions of miles from the Earth.
The analog also includes the use of small submarines that are serving as notional Space Exploration Vehicles, which on a larger planetary body like the moon or Mars would roll on wheels to extend the range of explorers. On smaller bodies like an asteroid, SEVs might have small thrusters for mobility.
NASA astronauts Ricky Arnold, Mike Gernhardt and Stan Love, all veterans of shuttle mission spacewalks, are serving as crew of the DeepWater submersible submarines.
Aquarius offers just 400 square feet of living and working space — a minimal area that raises the habitability issues sure to confront explorers assigned to deep space missions.