Hurricane Rina Shortens NEEMO Crew’s Mock Asteroid Mission

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NEW YORK — NASA recalled the astronaut crew of a mock asteroid mission on the ocean floor Oct. 26 due to growing concerns about Hurricane Rina, which was threatening to make landfall along Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Since Oct. 20, a six-person crew of astronauts and scientists has been living at the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, which sits 18 meters below the Atlantic Ocean, about 5.6 kilometers off the shore of Key Largo, Fla. But Hurricane Rina forced the crew to resurface about a week earlier than planned due to safety concerns from the strengthening storm.

“[Mission controllers] were watching the weather forecast yesterday and were 90 percent sure that they were going to have to go ahead and end the mission,” NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean said. “If the forecast had changed dramatically, they could have stayed down, but that didn’t happen.”

NASA also released a video of Hurricane Rina from space as seen by astronauts living on the international space station.

The asteroid simulation was the 15th expedition of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, and was the first to test ways to anchor to an asteroid, explore its surface and perform science experiments on the space rock.

The start of the NEEMO 15 mission already had been delayed due to what was then a tropical storm nearby. To ensure the crew’s safety, the 13-day mission was cut short Oct. 26 at roughly the halfway mark.

“Crew decompressed overnight and will return to surface shortly. Hurricane Rina is just a little too close for comfort,” NEEMO 15 mission controllers said via Twitter.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, commander of the international space station, captured video footage of Hurricane Rina from aboard the orbiting complex at 2:39 p.m. EDT Oct. 25 as the space station flew 399 kilometers over the Caribbean Sea, east of Belize.

The NEEMO 15 “aquanaut” crew underwent a 15-hour decompression process overnight and returned to the surface shortly after 9:30 a.m. EDT Oct. 26.

“Crew sad to leave early, but feel we got a lot of objectives accomplished,” NEEMO 15 crew member David Saint-Jacques said via Twitter. “Overnight decompression fine. See you at surface.”

NASA does not intend to resume the NEEMO 15 expedition at a later time, Dean said, but the crew members were able to accomplish many of the mission’s goals while they were submerged.

“They were able to get a lot of good information,” she said. “Obviously we would have liked to have gotten more, but they have to stay safe there.”

The NEEMO 15 crew is made up of Saint-Jacques; NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, who was commander of the expedition; Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi; planetary scientist Steve Squyres; and two veteran divers, James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

The aquanauts were testing various concepts of how to anchor to an asteroid, travel around on its surface and perform science experiments on a mock asteroid landscape that was assembled on the ocean floor. The crew completed six extravehicular activities outside the Aquarius habitat and collected a wealth of scientific data in the process, Dean said.

On Oct. 25, the crew members also participated in a series of behavioral science projects that included simulating communication delays with Mission Control that astronauts would encounter on a real-life mission to an asteroid.

The results of the NEEMO 15 mission will help NASA plan for a future trip to an asteroid. As part of NASA’s exploration goals, the agency is aiming to send humans to an asteroid by the year 2025.

The NEEMO mission is a joint venture between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which owns the Aquarius laboratory, and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which operates the underwater facility.