NEW YORK — Before humans set foot on an asteroid in space, a group of NASA astronauts and scientists will test concepts and techniques for future expeditions on a mock space rock on the ocean floor.
Engineers have begun laying the foundations for the 15th expedition of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO 15 for short, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 17. To prepare for the undersea mission, diving crews are setting up the tools and rocky environment needed to simulate an asteroid landscape.
NEEMO expeditions take place at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, which rests more than 19 meters below the ocean’s surface, off the coast of Key Largo in the Florida Keys.
This year’s NEEMO 15 expedition will simulate a trip to an asteroid, and the so-called aquanauts will investigate how best to anchor to the surface of a space rock and how to move around, said NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean.
To prepare for the 10-day October mission, various engineering tests are planned for completion by mid-May at the Aquarius laboratory. The NEEMO support team will perform surface dives to lay out the test site, including configuring a rock wall, NASA officials said.
“The rock wall is going to be used to simulate the surface of an asteroid,” Dean said. “For the engineering tests, it will be 16 by 12 feet (4.9 by 3.7 meters). It’s made of fiberglass panels. They’ll try out different anchoring methods on it — drilling into it or using metal plates to simulate magnetic anchoring.”
The team also will check the communications system and perform preliminary tests for NEEMO 15. While the scientists and engineers will be hard at work on the ocean floor, they will not stay inside Aquarius.
Unlike a landing on the Moon or Mars, an asteroid will have little, if any, gravity to exert on astronauts or their vehicles. NEEMO 15 will evaluate different anchoring methods and different ways to connect multiple anchors to form pathways.
“Even experts don’t know what the surface of an asteroid is going to be like,” NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd said in a statement. “There may be asteroids that we don’t even know about yet that we’ll be visiting. So we’re figuring out the best way to do that.”
NEEMO 15’s prime mission objectives will be to test operational concepts needed to explore near-Earth asteroids. As the aquanauts operate and test these concepts, they will provide information and valuable feedback to NASA engineers.
“Performing spacewalks on asteroids will be similar to performing spacewalks at the space station,” Dean said. “Performing the tasks underwater is one of the best ways to simulate what it would be like to perform them in space — that’s why astronauts practice for spacewalks underwater at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.”
Manned deepwater submersibles that function as space exploration vehicles will also be used, and the aquanauts will perform extra-vehicular activities to assess the efficiency of different operations.
NASA uses the Aquarius laboratory and the ocean floor to simulate aspects of a low-gravity environment and to help researchers understand factors relevant for real space missions.