Asteroid training underwater: NEEMO 16 mission scheduled for June

by Chris Bergin

The next NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission is being scheduled for June, with teams already preparing for a recon trip ahead of the exercise. The underwater training exercises are staged at the Aquarius underwater habitat in Key Largo, Florida – simulating the conditions and protocols for a real Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) mission.

NEEMO 15 to 16:

NEEMO has been in work for many years now, with missions 1 to 13 primarily used for astronaut training, while NEEMO 14 tested equipment and operational concepts for space exploration.

NEEMO 15 was the first real full scale operation – even including Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) teams – continuing the trend of testing equipment and operations required for exploration of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs).

The mission treated the underwater environment like a giant Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), allowing for specialist divers to simulate working on a NEA, communicating – with time delays – with mission control and practising the use of tools to work on an asteroid.

The October NEEMO 15 mission was led by NASA astronaut and former International Space Station (ISS) crew member Shannon Walker. The crew included Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques from the 2009 NASA astronaut class.

Steven Squyres of Cornell University and scientific principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, joined James Talacek and Nate Bender of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington – who are both professional aquanauts. NASA astronauts Stan Love, Richard Arnold and Mike Gernhardt, all veteran spacewalkers, participated in the NEEMO mission from the DeepWorker submersible, which they piloted.

The submersible is a key element of simulating a NEA mission, acting as an underwater stand-in for the Multi Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV), which is currently the leading concept to be the main NEA exploration vehicle at the site at the asteroid, utilizing its robotic arms and crew airlock.

Aquarius acts as the Deep Space Hab (DSH) for these missions, a large element of hardware that would arrive at the NEA after being launched from Earth on the Space Launch System (SLS) – likely the 105mt Block 1A Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV).

NEEMO 15 worked on three major elements of a NEA mission, such as how to anchor to the surface via the “excursion lines”; how to move around; and how best to collect data and materials.

This allowed for the evaluation of different anchoring methods and how to connect the multiple anchors to form pathways. The aquanauts and engineers evaluated different strategies for deploying instruments and moving along a surface without gravity.

With MOD involvement on the NEEMO 15 mission, enforced time delays – as would be expected for a NEA mission in deep space – were employed.

Training for such communication delays will be vital, ensuring the astronauts have a mindset of not proceeding with a task until controllers “on Earth” have given a green light, far in excess of such protocols already used for EVAs outside of the International Space Station (ISS).

For NEEMO 15, Jeremy Hansen and Jeanette Epps, members of the 2009 astronaut class, were the capsule communicators (CAPCOM) for the mission. Hansen is from the Canadian Space Agency, and Epps from NASA.

However, the 15th NEEMO mission ended earlier than planned, due to the predicted path of Hurricane Rina. The NOAA, which operates the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory determined Rina posed a risk to the safety of the mission.

According to NASA, 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.

With L2 information confirming the next mission (L2 Link), a recon crew will be stationed out of Key Fargo in May, ahead of the NEEMO 16 mission, which is scheduled to begin in June.

NEA Missions:

Per MOD documentation (L2 Link), four asteroid mission scenarios are being studied at a planning level, listed as Condition 4 through 7, opening with three crewmembers heading out into deep space – one remaining in the Deep Space Hab (DSH), while the remaining two conduct an EVA on the NEO, prior to moving up to the involvement of a MMSEV hosting the two crewmembers excursion to the asteroid’s surface.

The Condition 6 and 7 mission profiles are based on a crew of four, with one scenario seeing three crewmembers work inside the SEV at the asteroid, whilst one remains in the DSH. The other scenario involves all four crewmembers heading to the asteroid, in two SEVs.

Additional NEA mission architecture was presented at the November Human Space Exploration Community’s Workshop meetings in San Diego, California – under the theme of “Asteroid Next”.

Under this plan, the “Mission Scenario: Asteroid Next” presentation notes that “advancing in-space habitation capability for long duration” missions, developing “Subsystem high reliability and commonality and advanced extravehicular activity and robotics capabilities,” as well as developing “long-term storage and management of cryogenic fluids” technologies are all necessary in the coming decade to accomplish a 2028 crewed NEA mission.

A 2028 NEA mission appears to slip further away from the main example show in the NASA Flexible Path evaluations (L2 Link to Presentation) – now a few years old, but still the most comprehensive overview of deep space mission since the Augustine Commission review into Human Space Flight.

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

In the Flexible Path, a mission to Near Earth Object 1999AO10, would require a launch date of January 2, 2026.

NASA managers have previously noted that a NEO mission would likely occur in the middle of the next decade, making this target a viable example. However, this was before the lunar surface options started to rise to the forefront over recent months.

The NEO 1999AO10 deep space mission would last 155 days, around half of the mission length for the other candidate mentioned – 304 days – for NEO 2001 GP2.

A team, led by former Space Shuttle Program (SSP) manager John Shannon, is continuing to work an exploration roadmap which will include NEA missions.

This process is closing in on a conclusion, with the team – per L2 information (L2 Link) – now working the final stage of the exploration plan for the crewed missions to the moons of Mars, under the Design Reference Mission (DRM) Concept of Operations (Con Ops) effort.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, NEEMO)

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