NEEMO 20 to build knowledge base on delayed deep space communications

by Chris Bergin

An international effort to work on the challenges associated with deep space communications is continuing on the ground, in space and underwater – with the upcoming NEEMO 20 mission set to simulate the time-delays associated with sending and receiving commands between controllers on Earth and astronauts on Mars.


The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) objectives are a highly advanced – and a more involved – version of the underwater training environment provided by the likes of the giant Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

NEEMO expeditions are multi-faceted, allowing for specialists to simulate working on a deep space location.

The crews live and work from 63 feet below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface on the Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat – located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

NEEMO’s future was in doubt due to ownership issues of the facility, but it is now under the stewardship of Florida International University (FIU) which paved the way for new NEEMO missions.

The NEEMO expeditions have been evolving their objectives to match the long-term goals of sending astronauts to Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) and missions to Mars.

A large focus has been placed on conducting EVAs on the surface of an asteroid.

One such objective included 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, mirroring conceptual graphics of an astronaut working up close and personal with a NEA.

Adding to the realism, the mission include the use of DeepWorker submersibles, 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.

The NEEMO 18 expedition included ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, along with NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Mark Vande Hei on a nine-day mission.

NEEMO 19 was a seven-day mission, including ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ESA astronaut trainer and spacewalk instructor Hervé Stevenin and led by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik.

The international makeup of the crew mirrors the likely scenario for when humans return to deep space exploration, which will require multiple agencies – and potentially commercial companies – to conduct the expensive and technically challenging exploration goals.

2015-07-06-144144NEEMO 20 will follow the same pattern, with ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano – himself no stranger to water – set to lead NASA’s 20th underwater astronaut training mission this month.

“Astronauts and a lot of water – my kind of environment!” joked the Italian, referencing his less-than-humorous EVA-23 that had to be terminated when water started to build up in his helmet.

Parmitano will be joined by NASA astronaut Serena Aunon, NASA spacewalk specialist David Coan and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai on an extended two week mission.

2015-07-06-150608Building on NEEMO 19, the new mission will also include wearable computers and smart apps, which are likely to play a large role in future deep space missions.

NEEMO 19 tested ESA voice-command ‘mobiPV’ prototype using smartphones, tablets and screen glasses, which will also head into space when Andreas Mogensen heads to the International Space Station (ISS).

According to tech site – NEEMO 20 will again include the use of Voxer’s push-to-talk app, with “Voxer for iOS” and “Voxer for Web” to help simulate Earth to Mars communication to mission control.

Use of these apps will add to the realism of a deep space mission at an asteroid and Mars, with NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) previously involved, treating actual EVAs (or Waterwalks) during NEEMO as if they are in deep space by utilizing communication delays and protocols.

The MOD has been based in a mobile Mission Control Center (MCC) on previous NEEMO missions. For NEEMO 20, all of the crews, above and below the ocean surface will have iPads running the apps, allowing them to all work with the relevant communication delays – which will be staggered to mimic various missions.

2015-07-06-151058According to Voxer, the mission will begin with calls between the various assets suffering from no delays, ahead of a five minute delay on the fourth day, a 10 minute delay for the second half of the expedition.

NEEMO 20 – set to begin on July 20 – will also focus on evaluating tools and techniques being tested for future spacewalks on a variety of surfaces and gravity levels ranging from asteroids to the moons of Mars and the Martian surface.

“The NEEMO team is particularly excited about this mission as it is a huge milestone to have achieved 20 missions at Aquarius over the past 15 years,” noted NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd.

“Living and working in the highly operational, isolated and extreme environment of the aquatic realm has provided significant science and engineering for the benefit of human spaceflight. It has also clearly proven to be as close to spaceflight as is possible here on Earth.”

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


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