Officials at the American space agency announce that a team of astronauts is now ready to descend beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of Key Largo, Florida. Under 18 meters (60 feet) of water, NASA has a scientific installation that it plans to use as a space simulator.
The purpose of this mission is to simulate the environment astronauts will encounter as they visit a near-Earth asteroid. The space agency has been directed last year to conduct such a mission as early as 2025, and to reach Mars with a manned crew by the mid-2030s.
Current plans call for the mission to last 13 days, which is the same amount of time an expedition to an asteroid would last. During this time, six NASA astronauts will be joined by two professional divers, as well as Cornell University professor Steve Squyres.
The latter is known for being the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission to Mars, which features the twin robots Spirit and Opportunity. He will be taking part in the new undersea expedition as well.
Starting October 17, the astronaut team will be led by NASA's Shannon Walker, who herself lived for five months in space back in 2010, aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The Aquarius Underwater Laboratory 3 is located half a mile off the coast of Florida, Space reports.
The new effort is the 15th mission carried out under the NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) program. The goal here is to allow astronauts to take advantage of the benefits training in water provides, and to teach them how to use the knowledge in space exploration missions.
Over the past few years, NEEMO expeditions have been used to simulate the exploration of Mars, the assembly of modules on the ISS, as well as spacewalks and Moonwalks. This year's NEEMO 15 is the first to simulate a visit to the extremely-low-gravity conditions of an asteroid.
“NEEMO 15 will require complex choreography between the submarines and aquanauts living and working in their undersea home,” Bill Todd explains in a statement released yesterday, September 20. The expert holds an appointment as the manager of the NEEMO project.
“Researching the challenges of exploring an asteroid surface in the undersea realm will be exciting for fans of exploration pioneers Cousteau and Armstrong alike,” the NASA official adds.
In addition to Walker, the team will also include NASA astronauts Stan Love, Richard Arnold and Mike Gernhardt, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
For the NEEMO initiative, NASA is cooperating with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the owner of Aquarius – and the University of North Carolina, in Wilmington, which operates the underwater facility.