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  NASA NEEMO XV mission: Life on an asteroid

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Author Topic:   NASA NEEMO XV mission: Life on an asteroid
Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-21-2011 03:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations Project (NEEMO) 15

NEEMO 15 will be the first of the undersea missions to simulate a visit to an asteroid. In May, a team of aquanauts set the stage for the tests by working through some of the concepts in an effort to improve efficiency.

"NEEMO 15 will require complex choreography between the submarines and aquanauts living and working in their undersea home," said Bill Todd, NEEMO project manager. "Researching the challenges of exploring an asteroid surface in the undersea realm will be exciting for fans of exploration pioneers Cousteau and Armstrong alike."

NEEMO 15 will investigate three aspects of a mission to an asteroid: how to anchor to the surface; how to move around; and how best to collect data. Unlike the moon or Mars, an asteroid would have little, if any, gravity to hold astronauts or vehicles, so an anchor will be necessary.

NEEMO 15 will evaluate different anchoring methods and how to connect the multiple anchors to form pathways. The aquanauts and engineers will evaluate different strategies for deploying instruments and moving along a surface without gravity.

Life on an Asteroid

NASA is actively making plans to expand the horizons of exploration, and with the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, humans will soon have a way to travel beyond low Earth orbit, to such distant destinations as the moon, Mars, Mars' moons and asteroids. Although many of the questions being asked as part of the NEEMO 15 mission will be applicable in any of those scenarios, the primary focus for 2011 is asteroid exploration.

Asteroid missions present a particular challenge. Unlike a planetary or lunar surface, asteroids have no gravity to anchor vehicles, astronauts and tools to the ground. In that way, a spacewalk on an asteroid is somewhat similar to a spacewalk at the International Space Station. But unlike the space station, the asteroid wasn't built with an astronaut's convenience in mind: there will be no handholds spaced to correspond a spacewalker's reach, or existing interfaces to which foot restraints can be connected.

To work in such an environment, NASA will need to come up with innovative exploration techniques, and analog missions such as NEEMO 15 are the first step in doing so. Simulating a mission to an asteroid in a weightless underwater environment will help NASA understand the nuts and bolts of how to explore and live on an asteroid now, rather than waiting until the first asteroid landing – when to the lessons would be much more difficult and costly to learn – to try out the concepts.

Asteroid-bound aquanauts

NASA astronaut and former International Space Station (ISS) crew member Shannon Walker leads the NEEMO 15 crew on their 13-day undersea mission on the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo, Fla.

The NEEMO crew also includes JAXA astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. They are members of the 2009 NASA astronaut class.

Rounding out the crew is Steven Squyres of Cornell University, James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Squyres is the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project. Talacek and Bender are professional aquanauts.

In addition, NASA astronauts Stan Love, Richard Arnold and Mike Gernhardt, all veteran spacewalkers, will participate in the NEEMO mission from the DeepWorker submersible, which they will pilot. The DeepWorker is a small submarine used as an underwater stand-in for the Space Exploration Vehicle, which might someday be used to explore the surface of an asteroid.

Jeremy Hansen and Jeanette Epps, members of the 2009 astronaut class, are the capsule communicators for the mission. Hansen is from the Canadian Space Agency, and Epps from NASA.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-21-2011 03:17 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NEEMO 15 update
Splashdown Day!

Today (Oct. 20) was splashdown day. As stormy as the weather had been for the last five days, today was sunny and beautiful. And, thankfully, the seas were calm.

Because we had to delay our start of the mission [due to weather], there were more habitat checkouts than usual to be completed before we could get to work.

Above: NEEMO 15 crew members from right to left – Commander: Shannon Walker (NASA), Steve Squyres (Cornell), David Saint-Jacques (CSA), Takuya Onishi (JAXA)

Last weekend before the storms hit, the umbilical to Aquarius was removed to ensure that it was not damaged. The umbilical provides the air and communications to the habitat and runs from the habitat up to a giant buoy on the surface.

First thing this morning support divers went out to reconnect the umbilical and our hab techs, James and Nate, went inside Aquarius to start getting it configured. Early afternoon, the rest of the crew scuba'd down and entered their new home.

After an orientation and safety briefing, the crew was put to work stowing gear and setting up the communication system.

Once everything was ready to go, the sun was setting and it was getting dark outside the habitat. But, our day was not done. The crew had to do some familiarization dives to get acquainted with diving on a helmet connected to the habitat.

David and Steve went out first. They spent about 45 minutes walking around the area where we will be working our first excursion in the morning. After that Tak and Walker went out.

It was nearly 9:00 p.m. by the time we were finished. So, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then wrapped things up for the night.

All and all, a very interesting day. It is quite strange to think that we are in a can that is at the bottom of the sea. And, even stranger to look out your windows and see fish!

Above: Crew poses for a group photo right after splash down. Crew members from the left to right – Commander: Shannon Walker, Takuya Onishi,Steve Squyres, David Saint-Jacques. Inside Habitat – Hab Techs: Nate Bender, James Talek.

You can follow NEEMO XV on Twitter, Facebook and by live underwater webcam.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-24-2011 07:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NEEMO 15 update by Steve Squyres
Booms and Jetpacks

Today [Oct. 24] was Day 4 of our mission and it was a challenging one. As usual, the action was centered around the "EVAs", or extra-vehicular activities in NASA parlance – our simulated space walks.

We had two different kinds of activities in today's EVAs. One of them was very slow, very methodical, and very effective. Imagine a long telescoping pole – we called it a boom – with big heavy magnets on each end. We used this boom to get around on the simulated asteroid surface (i.e., the sea floor), moving like an inchworm.

It goes like this: Fasten both magnets to anchor points on the surface. Unfasten one and move to it to a new anchor point. Fasten it. Unfasten the other one and move it to a new anchor point... and repeat as necessary. It was slow, but it got us to where we wanted to go pretty reliably.

Once we arrived at our destination, the boom was great. It's hard to do things like hit a rock with a hammer in zero-g without going flying. But with the boom solidly in place, we could wrap our legs around it and whack away at the rock pretty easily. So a boom could be a good technique for geologists to use to get work done on an asteroid, I think.

The other part of the EVA was totally different... jet packs! We had battery–powered thruster packs on our backs that we could use to move very quickly and easily from one place to another. And yeah, I have to confess, it was every bit as much fun as it sounds like it was. Quick, easy, and very cool. Problem was, once we arrived at our destination with a job to do, staying in place was a lot harder.

Sometimes the best answer to a complicated problem is to use some combination of techniques. So one way I could see this going might be that astronauts would use jet packs to move long distances over an asteroid surface, and then a boom for smaller motions and getting work done.

Or maybe they'll use something completely different! It's only Day 4 of the mission, and we've got a lot more techniques to try... so we'll see.

You can follow NEEMO XV on Twitter, Facebook and by live underwater webcam.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-24-2011 07:10 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
collectSPACE Interview
NASA's NEEMO XV aquanaut crew

On Oct. 24, collectSPACE spoke with the NEEMO XV (15) crew live from the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo, Fla.

cS: First for Shannon, can you describe briefly how NEEMO 15 differs from previous NEEMO expeditions, specifically in regards to simulating an asteroid mission?

Shannon Walker: In previous missions, the emphasis of NEEMO was to look at habitability and doing different types of science underwater, things such as telemedicine. On this one, we are specifically looking at how to collect science on an asteroid.

So this is the first one where we've done asteroid-type experiments, if you will, at NEEMO. We're sort of moving forward [with] looking ahead to see how we can use NEEMO to progress our understanding of what we need to understand and to build once we start out into the solar system.

cS: Staying with you, since you recently not too long ago came back from the space station, how does life on Aquarius compare to life on the space station?

Shannon Walker: In a lot of ways, it is very similar to life on station. We have a pretty rigid schedule that we have to keep. We're living in small quarters and there are six of us here. So in that respect, it is very similar to station.

Of course, the station is actually a lot bigger than the Aquarius habitat, so we have more room on station and no gravity up there, which gives it a different twist.

cS: For Steve Squyres, I've been reading your blog and flying jetpacks on the ocean floor while conducting a simulated asteroid mission might just be the most awesome thing I've ever heard, but the awesomeness of the activity aside, how do you expect a future real mission to an asteroid to resemble what you and your crew mates are doing now on the ocean floor? How close will it be?

Steve Squyres: Well, that's exactly what we're trying to learn. If you sit down and you imagine the kinds of techniques you might use for moving around on an asteroid, or anchoring to an asteroid, or doing work on an asteroid, there are a lot of possibilities.

I talked on my blog yesterday about jetpacks and booms, but you can use translation lines or wires strung out across the surface, you can use small spacecraft that fly people around, you can use some type of big crane — we're actually trying out all of those. And I think what's going to emerge from this is a much better understanding of which are the right techniques to use.

And I don't want to guess just now what the answer is going to be because we're only part way through this. I sort of have my likes and dislikes so far, but I think in the end, once the data are all analyzed, there is going to be a pretty clear picture to emerge of what is the best way to do business in this type of environment.

cS: And since you are familiar with working with a time delay given remotely controlling Mars rovers, I think you're doing some simulated communication delays on this mission, so is that an easier or harder challenge for a human crew to compensate than when trying to drive a rover on Mars?

Steve Squyres: I think when you have a human crew all working together, you're going to have a degree of autonomy that you can never build into a robotic spacecraft. We try to make our robotics spacecraft as smart and capable as we can, but they are never going to match what a human crew can do.

So if you have a human crew that's a long distance from Earth and they can't interact in real time with the Earth, they are going to have an ability to work together and solve problems that's going to make them much more effective than any robot could be.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 27328
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-26-2011 08:40 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA's NEEMO 15 ends early due to Hurricane Rina

Due to the predicted path of Hurricane Rina, the 15th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, ended a week earlier than planned. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory and the agency determined Rina posed a risk to the safety of the mission taking place near Key Largo, Florida.

The six aquanauts of the NEEMO crew left the facility, where they lived for five days, and returned to the surface of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in Key Largo on Wednesday morning.

The six-member NEEMO crew, including commander and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takuya Onishi; Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques; Mars Exploration Rovers principal investigator Steven Squyres of Cornell University; and James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, kicked off this year's mission on Oct. 20, after an initial delay caused by another storm in the area.

The NEEMO crew conducted six underwater spacewalks and one day of scientific research inside the Aquarius habitat.

They also completed four days of scientific asteroid exploration analog operations using the deep worker submersibles that stood in for NASA's Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV).

This year's mission was the first NEEMO to focus on operational concepts that would be used in human exploration of an asteroid.

The "crew [is] sad to leave early, but feel we got a lot of objectives accomplished," Saint-Jacques wrote on Twitter.

Above: NEEMO 15 crew members after surfacing on Oct. 26. From left to right – Takuya Onishi (JAXA), David Saint-Jacques (CSA), Shannon Walker (NASA), Steve Squyres (Cornell).

According to NASA, the remainder of the NEEMO 15 mission will not be rescheduled. NEEMO 16 is tentatively set for the summer of 2012.

See here for discussion of NEEMO and its simulated exploration missions.

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