Asteroid mission planning continues as NEEMO 16 selects an international crew

by Chris Bergin

NASA, ESA and JAXA astronauts will all be involved in the upcoming NEEMO 16 (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) mission. The asteroid training mission – set to take place near the Florida coastline in June –  comes at a time NASA managers continue to refine their deep space plans.

Missions To An Asteroid:

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.

Currently, a definitive exploration roadmap is still being worked, one that is due for a NASA Headquarters overview briefing this month, but may remain under evaluation – and more importantly unreleased – until 2013.

As such – and as used by Deputy Administrator Lori Garver during Discovery’s arrival at Dulles Airport on Tuesday – the party line for NASA continues to be the vague reference of missions to an “Asteroid and eventually Mars” for the Agency’s Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) ambitions.

However, with updated details (L2 Link) to be published in an article at a later date, an international Exploration Platform (or Gateway) continues to one of the leading options, in turn becoming one of the key elements in the baseline of the exploration roadmap.

Built at the International Space Station (ISS) and then sent to Earth Moon Lagrange point (EML2) via Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), this Gateway would provide a staging post for mission to the Lunar Surface, NEAs, Mars and potentially other destinations.

Currently, based on the Design Reference Missions (DRMs) in the Exploration Systems Development Division (ESD) Concept Of Operations (Con Ops) document (L2 Link), the plan of record for NEA missions revolves around the use of two to three – depending on if the mission’s content – Space Launch System (SLS) Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles (HLVs) to loft the required hardware into orbit ahead of the long duration mission into deep space.

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As far as potential NEAs to visit, only the 2009 Flexible Path presentation (L2 Link) provides actual targets, with a mission to Near Earth Object 1999AO10 outlined, requiring a mission launch date of January 2, 2026.

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

Both missions were outlined without the use of a Gateway based at EML2.

Notably, the Gateway would – as described in several scenarios – likely be an international effort with international modules, not unlike the International Space Station, potentially involving NASA and international crews as a result.

As such, it may be no surprise that a European and Japanese astronaut have been inserted into NASA’s next key asteroid training mission.


In announcing the full crew, NASA astronaut and former space shuttle crew member Dottie M. Metcalf-Lindenburger was assigned to lead the mission, to be assisted by former British Army Air Corps Major Timothy Peake – who is representing ESA. Major Peake recently carried out his first “run” in JSC’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL).

Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Cornell University professor Steven Squyres – who was also a NEEMO 15 crew member – will make up the crew.

The latest NEEMO mission will begin June 11, building on lessons learned from 2011’s NEEMO 15 mission – which was cut short by bad weather – testing innovative solutions to engineering challenges allowing astronauts to eventually explore asteroids.

“NEEMO is the best space exploration analogue used in official astronaut training, followed tightly by ESA’s cave training programme,” noted astronaut trainer Loredana Bessone from the European Astronaut Centre. “When I dived down to the underwater habitat, it looked exactly how I imagine a lunar base will look like.

“Aquanauts were ‘floating’ around in slow motion, performing repairs and mounting equipment. I could not take my eyes off the scene.”

Adding to the realism of a deep space mission at an asteroid, NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) will be involved once again, treating actual EVAs (or Waterwalks) during NEEMO 16 as if it was in deep space by utilizing communication delays and protocols.

The MOD team will be based in a mobile Mission Control Center (MCC).

This NEEMO expedition will also focus on restraint and translation techniques, and optimum crew size.

The crew of four will spend 12 days living 63 feet below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat.

With further NEEMO missions to follow, it is hoped the lessons learned from the underwater missions will remove some of the guesswork for the teams ahead of a real mission.

“We’re trying to look out into the future and understand how we’d operate on an asteroid,” said Mike Gernhardt, NASA astronaut and NEEMO principal investigator. “You don’t want to make a bunch of guesses about what you’ll need and then get to the asteroid to find out it won’t work the way you thought it would.

“NEEMO helps give us the information we need to make informed decisions now.”

(Images: Via L2 content from L2, NEMMO and NASA)

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