NASA preparing to simulate Asteroid EVA protocols via NEEMO mission

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) are preparing for involvement in an underwater simulation of protocols which may become part of a manned mission to a Near Earth Object (NEO). The tests will be carried out during October’s NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission, which will be based at the Aquarius underwater habitat in Key Largo, Florida.


Owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Aquarius operates 3.5 miles off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is deployed next to deep coral reefs 19 meters below the surface.

While it is in regular use by numerous scientists – such as marine biologists – 14 missions have already been conducted by NEEMO, which involves NASA crews – known as aquanauts – spending up to three weeks living underwater.

Of the 14 missions, 1 to 13 were used primarily for astronaut training, while NEEMO 14 tested equipment and operational concepts for space exploration. The May tests included MOD staff, who evaluated EVA tools, a Suit Port Alignment Guide, dive system configurations, and communications architecture at Aquarius.

NEEMO 15, scheduled for October 17-26, 2011, will continue this trend by testing equipment and operations required for exploration of Near-Earth Asteroids (Ne As).

For this mission, MOD will be fully involved, as the tests ramp up the simulation of EVAs on an asteroid, otherwise known as a Near Earth Object (NEO). Although NASA’s future plan is far from clear, a deep space mission to an asteroid is often cited as a stepping stone to an eventual Mars mission.

“From October 17-29th a crew of six aquanauts will live at the Aquarius underwater habitat in Key Largo, Florida. Mission will test techniques, tools, planning, and communication protocols in a simulated microgravity environment for human exploration of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs),” noted an expansive MOD overview presentation (available on L2), which was produced on August 10.

“Focus on development of EVA tools and techniques for translation and geological sampling.”

The presentation provides an interesting insight into some of the techniques which would be employed on the first manned visit to an asteroid.

Mission scenarions are portrayed in graphics showing a spacewalker using a grid of “excursion lines”, accompanied by the MMSEV (Multi Mission Space Exploration Vehicle), whilst an Orion (MPCV) loiters in close proximity, itself attached to a deep space hab module and a second Orion.

“EVA Ops concepts for evaluation include: Networks of excursion lines. Crewmember anchoring and restraint techniques. Crewmember restraint on SEV robotic arm. Rock sample collection and containment tools,” the presentation added.

“Manned deepwater submersibles acting will simulate Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV).”

Whilst the simulated missions are being conducted, remote Mission Control Centers (MCC) – established both in Key Largo and building 30 room 211 at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – will exercise time delay communication protocols, along with advanced planning and timeline development tools.

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston is also being put to good use, allowing for the evaluation of tools which will be sent to the Florida exercises.

The cooperation between NASA MOD and NEEMO benefits both parties, with NEEMO gaining the vast experience of EVA training and execution conducted by the Houston team, whilst MOD broadens its unique mission experience and gains insight into the provisions required for exploration missions.

“NEEMO Benefits: Tools and operational concepts developed will be able to leverage a generation of successful EVA experience which has been earned in the Mission Operations community,” the presentation explained. “Understanding of human capability to operate tools, suits, and perform tasks during EVA. Ability to relate simulated underwater EVAs to a zero-g environment. Identification of simulation artifacts.

“MOD Benefits: Demonstrate capability to integrate a unique mission in MCC. Experience gained by providing mission control services to a program with unique data, video, command, and software requirements will be beneficial when marketing our capability to external partners.

“Early operational involvement in tools and ops concept testing improves efficiency, while reducing redesign iteration cycles prior ISS DTOs (Detailed Test Objectives) and exploration missions. EVA anchoring and geological sampling tools. Comm Delay and Autonomous Crew Planning.”

Although the final approval for the involvement of MOD is dependent on approving what is likely to be a relatively small amount of funding, the vast experience that can be gained from – as listed – a reduced gravity simulation, with SEV-analog vehicles, in an extreme environment, with flight-like environment for crew and comm delay ops concept testing, would provide an opportunity to build the baseline for a future NEO mission.

As far as potential NEO missions, the only documented targets – with any “mission related” detail – can be found via NASA’s unreleased post-Augustine Commission “Flexible Path” presentation (L2) and the 726 page Space Shuttle Program (SSP) SD (Shuttle Derived) HLV (Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle) assessment presentation (L2).

The SD HLV presentation – which mainly focuses on the use of the “Sidemount” HLV , but includes the Inline SD HLV as now confirmed as the design for SLS – lists a 304 day mission to Near Earth Object 2001 GP2, which would require a departure from Earth in 2019.

That mission timeline is – of course – all-but ruled out by the continued funding challenges and direction delays to a definitive Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) architecture plan, at both the political and agency level.

However, NASA’s Flexible Path presentation cited a mission to Near Earth Object 1999AO10, which require a launch date of January 2, 2026. NASA managers have recently noted that a NEO mission would likely occur in the middle of the next decade, making this target a viable example.

Per the Flexible Path findings, this mission would last only 155 days (versus 304 days for the NEO 2001 GP2 mission).

Also see’s Flexible Path Review:
Part 1: Battle of the Heavy Lift Launchers – Monster 200mt vehicle noted
Part 2: Manned mission to construct huge GEO and deep space telescopes proposed
Part 3: NASA Flexible Path Evaluation of 2025 human mission to visit an asteriod
Part 4: Taking Aim on Phobos – NASA outline Flexible Path precursor to Man on Mars

This 1999AO10 mission also revolves around the use of two HLVs, although they would likely have to launch within a relatively short period of time. Currently, the preliminary schedules for the Space Launch System (SLS) show such a mission date could be achievable, but the flight rate would require drastic alteration – at least for this NEO mission scenario.

The first HLV launch – per the Flexible Path approach – would place the Earth Departure Stage (EDS) and an “inflatable design Habitat” into orbit first. The higher propellant load Orion/SM (Service Module) is then placed in LEO on the second launch. This is a different sequence to that proposed in the SD HLV presentation, which launches the EDS on the first launch – after Orion, SM and Hab have already been launched.

There may be potential get-well to any issues with the HLV flight rate, such as finding an alternative Launch Vehicle for the Orion launch, and potentially the MMSEV – which is not directly referenced in either of the presentations for the NEO missions.

Per this scenario, the crew would spend 14 days working at the asteroid, which would include the collection of samples and potential “explosive seismic study of the NEO’s interior”.

Both of the referenced NEO missions also list the use of robotic pre-cursor missions – as much as the all of the mission examples remain notional until NASA’s exploration path has been clearly designed.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, NEEMO)

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