Monday, May 23, 2011
Asteroid Research Begins Under the Sea
NASA is using a capability-driven approach to new concepts of human exploration for multiple destinations in our solar system; one of those destinations are near-Earth asteroids. Across the agency, experts are being called into action to develop solutions to this new challenge. In particular, the NEEMO 15 analog field test, slated for mid-October this year, will test new tools, techniques, time lining approaches and communication technologies which could be useful when humans approach asteroids in space.
During the week of May 9-15, 2011, the NEEMO 15 support team is conducting engineering evaluations in the Aquarius undersea research laboratory in Key Largo, Fla. The purpose of these engineering tests is to understand the equipment, techniques and test concepts that will be implemented in the October NEEMO 15 mission, to make sure that all systems are ready for more rigorous testing when the crew will be living full-time in the Aquarius undersea habitat.
The specific operations for visiting an asteroid have not been considered in great detail before. Gravity on an asteroid is negligible, so walking around on one isn't really an option. Anchoring to the surface will probably be necessary, but asteroids are made up of different materials - some solid metal, some piles of rubble and some, a combination of rock, pebbles and dust. Weak gravity and diverse materials present problems whose solutions can be experimented with on the ocean floor, which is what the NEEMO 15 mission is trying to do.
NEEMO 15 will focus on three different aspects of a mission to an asteroid surface. The first is anchoring to the surface of the asteroid. Unlike the moon or Mars, an asteroid would have little, if any, gravity to hold astronauts or vehicles to its surface, so an anchor would be necessary. To move around on the surface of an asteroid will require a method of connecting multiple anchors to form pathways. The best way in which to connect these anchors will be the second aspect of a near-Earth asteroid mission addressed by NEEMO 15. Finally, since NASA's purpose in visiting an asteroid would be for scientific research, the third aspect of this mission investigated by NEEMO 15 would be different methods of sample collection.