NASA astronauts train for asteroid mission underwater

By Chelsea Whyte on June 11, 2012 9:38 PM EDT

NEEMO submersible
The NEEMO submersible that will be used on the mission will allow astronauts to simulate flying on an astronaut. (Photo: NASA)

Another step toward achieving President Obama's directive to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 began today with a voyage a little closer to home.

"WE HAVE SPLASHDOWN! #NEEMO16 crew entered the wet porch of their new home, the Aquarius Habitat at 12pm ET," said NASA's NEEMO Twitter account.

To prepare astronauts for asteroid-like conditions, an international team of 'aquanauts' from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency took off on the 16th expedition of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), a 12-day simulation on an undersea research habitat off the coast of Key Largo, Fla.

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The underwater environment is the best approximation we have on this planet for life on an asteroid, and the astronauts will use it to do a series of tests to iron out the details of communication delays, restraint and translation techniques, and optimum crew size

"We're trying to look out into the future and understand how we'd operate on an asteroid," said Mike Gernhardt, NASA astronaut and NEEMO principal investigator. "You don't want to make a bunch of guesses about what you'll need and then get to the asteroid to find out it won't work the way you thought it would. NEEMO helps give us the information we need to make informed decisions now." 

Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who flew on one of the last Space Shuttle missions and will be commanding the mission, told NPR that floating underwater is a lot like floating in space.

"Water is a nice way to free your body and get to explore a different way of movement," she said. "Since we're so stuck with walking here on Earth, it's nice to float around, flip around - just like in space."

Asteroid exploration poses challenges that the crew will have to work out before making the journey. Asteroids are much smaller than moons or planets and have smaller gravitational fields, so the team is testing equipment that will let them walk on the surface of an asteroid without flying off into space.

"While there are similarities between flying a plane, a helicopter, a shuttle, and a Space Station Robotic Manipulator System (SSRMS)," said Metcalf-Lindenburger on the NASA blog she's keeping during the mission, "Flying around an asteroid is a unique experience. Asteroids may have non-uniform gravity fields and erratic spin rates - not to mention the deep-space debris and sub-optimal lighting - all conditions that will challenge even the best pilots!"

The crew of NEEMO 16 will mimic those flights with small submarine vehicles to get around in the water.

"We will have deep-worker submersibles with us and they will be our space exploration vehicles, with robotic arms and foot plates on them, so we can attach ourselves and explore the asteroid, taking samples - soil samples, rock samples, etc.," said British astronaut Tim Peake, according to BBC News.

NASA has even incorporated a 50-second delay in communications with mission control to make the experience even more space-like, reports RedOrbit.

NASA's Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, which currently are in development, will allow people to begin exploring beyond the boundaries of Earth's orbit. The first human mission to an asteroid is planned for 2025.

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