NEEMO returns with two new underwater missions

by Chris Bergin

Two new missions under the NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) program have been announced, returning an international crew to an underwater base off the coast of Florida. The two summer missions – which follow a two year hiatus – will continue the work of training astronauts for potential deep space missions, including those to Near Earth Asteroids (NEA).

Finding NEEMO:

The last missions to take place under the program were NEEMO 15 and 16.

NEEMO 15 was the first real full scale operation, continuing the trend of testing equipment and operations required for exploration of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs).

Living and working 63 feet below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface on the Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat – now under the stewardship of Florida International University – the NEEMO 16 expedition focused on restraint and translation techniques, and optimum crew size.

The missions treat 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. Training in the NBL will be a precursor to the new NEEMO missions.

A key objective of the previous NEEMO missions was the evaluation of different anchoring methods and how to connect the multiple anchors to form pathways, as would be expected during a hands on mission to an asteroid.

The aquanauts and engineers evaluated different strategies for deploying instruments and moving along a surface without gravity, mirroring conceptual graphics of an astronaut working up close and personal with a NEA.

NEEMO 18 (skipping the NEEMO 17 designation), will be a nine-day mission beginning July 21.

This mission will focus on studies in behavioral health and performance, human health issues, and habitability.

Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will command NEEMO 18. He will be joined by NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Mark Vande Hei and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

“Exploration doesn’t just happen – you have to make it happen, step by step, with projects like this,” noted Pesquet.

“The day someone, perhaps an astronaut from the European astronaut corps, takes a small step on Mars or celestial body, it will be due to these coordinated international efforts that will have paved the way.”

NEEMO 19, which begins September 7, will run for seven days, focusing on the evaluation of tele-mentoring operations for ESA.

Telementoring is when a crew member is given instruction for a task by an expert who is located remotely but is virtually present via a video and voice connection.

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NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik will command this second mission. He will be joined by Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, and Herve Stevenin, ESA’s Head of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Training at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany.

The ESA trio took part in previous NEEMO ventures, while some members also trained in ESA’s caves program – which the UK’s Tim Peake – currently preparing to fly to the ISS – also took part in.

Z9Stevenin even reenacted an Apollo 11 moonwalk during an underwater test of a spacesuit training prototype last year off the coast of Marseille, France.

“It is a privilege to be part of the crew with three astronauts,” Stevenin noted. “I am looking forward to take part in this outstanding project to test future concepts for space operations as well as evaluating spacewalk tools, techniques and man–machine interfaces for future space exploration beyond the International Space Station.”

While some of the specific focus on NEAs has been removed from the new NEEMO missions, both expeditions will include EVA objectives and engineering investigations to mature technologies and training techniques for use on the space station and in asteroid exploration.

These EVAs will focus on evaluating man-machine work systems and EVA tools and techniques for exploration tasks in varying levels of gravity ranging from that of asteroids to the gravity of Martian moons and Mars itself.

The EVAs also will evaluate techniques to address re-planning of exploration operations accounting for different communications time delays.

September’s mission will test an ESA voice-command “mobiPV” prototype, using smartphones, tablets and screen glasses.

“NEEMO is an excellent opportunity to test some of the mobile computer technology that ESA is developing for space, which I will use during my mission to the International Space Station,” added Andreas.

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 as if they are in deep space by utilizing communication delays and protocols. The MOD team is based in a mobile Mission Control Center (MCC).

“It is both challenging and exciting for our astronaut crews to participate in these undersea missions in preparation for spaceflight,” noted Bill Todd, NEEMO project manager at NASA JSC.

“It is critical that we perform science applicable to NASA’s exploration goals in a high-fidelity space operational context. The extreme environment of life undersea is as close to being in space as possible.”

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, NEEMO and ESA)

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