Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com
Astronauts officially “splashed down” on Monday on a trip down to the bottom of the ocean to help them explore methods for future asteroid missions.
The team is going on a NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) to dive to an underwater base off the coast of Florida and simulate space experiences.
Astronauts from NASA, ESA and JAXA will be spending 12 days in the Aquarius habitat to test tools and techniques that could be used on a real mission to an asteroid.
The crew will not be able to surface without safety stops because they will be at a depth of about 65 feet.
The latest NEEMO mission is the 16th expedition to the bottom of the ocean. NASA is planning to send man to an asteroid sometime in the 2020s.
The space agency is building the Space Launch System, which is a huge rocket that is capable of sending tons of equipment into orbit and launching man to farther orbits.
The weightlessness of the ocean provides an environment for astronauts to train for space-like conditions without leaving Earth.
NASA has even incorporated a 50-second delay in communications with mission control to make the experience even more space-like.
Walking on an asteroid will be much different than what man experienced while walking on the Moon, and completely different than what it is like on Earth. Gravitational fields are smaller on asteroids, so taking just a step could push an astronaut right off the space rock.
Crewmembers would have to anchor themselves to the asteroid, or use a free-floating exploration vehicle that could work as a platform to get the astronauts close to the surface of the rock.
“We will have deep-worker submersibles with us and they will be our space exploration vehicles, with robotic arms and foot plates on them, so we can attach ourselves and explore the asteroid, taking samples – soil samples, rock samples, etc,” ESA astronaut Tim Peake told BBC News.
“NASA also wants to know what sort of team compositions are required. Is it better with one SEV [space exploration vehicle] or two SEVs, working in pairs or as individuals? We’ll be coming up with all sorts of data that will shape NASA’s asteroid mission.”
The 16th NEEMO mission will last for 10-days, and will require the team to live in cramped conditions. During this mission, students are being asked to get involved through the Science Under Pressure program.
Astronauts are inviting students to follow the NEEMO mission and speculate on the outcome of the experiments, such as: Will fizzy drinks still have their bubbles? Or, will toy helicopters be able to fly in the denser air of the underwater base?