NASA has announced its newest undersea mission, a 13-day voyage 60 feet (18 meters) into the Atlantic Ocean to simulate a trip to an asteroid. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, who previously lived and worked on the International Space Station for five months in 2010, will lead the crew during their foray to the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory 3 1/2 miles off the shore of Key Largo, Fla. The expedition is set to start on October 17. The voyage is the 15th in NASA’s NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) series of missions, which take advantage of the applicability of astronaut training to deep-sea travels. In this case, the neutral-buoyancy environment underwater is the closest approximation of the near-weightless conditions on an asteroid that can be had on Earth.
The NEEMO 15 mission is the first to simulate an asteroid visit. Previous underwater missions have rehearsed moonwalking, assembling space station modules, and even visits to Mars. The new NEEMO crew will test various methods of anchoring to an asteroid’s surface, moving around and collecting data. The astronauts and aquanauts will practice moving along a surface without gravity, and try out strategies for deploying instruments. To prepare for the mission, divers worked during the spring and summer to set up a simulated asteroid landscape on the sea floor. A 16-by-12-foot fiberglass wall will allow the explorers to practice drilling to anchor to an asteroid’s surface, and using metal plates for magnetic anchoring.