The next team of scientists in NASA’s NEEMO project will soon head to the research habitat where NASA is preparing for future missions to alien worlds. But this habitat isn’t in space; it’s underwater.
SIMULATING SPACE CONDITIONS
There are locations on Earth with similar conditions to those found in space. The bottom of the ocean is one of these locations.
The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) program has been sending researchers to its underwater research facility in the Atlantic Ocean for fifteen years. This station, named Aquarius, is the world’s only undersea research facility. Florida International University operates the research habitat, located 6.2 miles off the coast of Key Largo, Florida at a depth of 62 feet.
NASA describes, “Much like space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live.” The aquanauts deployed to Aquarius face similar challenges that astronauts will face on distant worlds.
A MAJOR MILESTONE
The NEEMO program has deployed nineteen research teams to Aquarius during the past fifteen years.
On July 20, 2015, NASA will send NEEMO 20 to the research habitat for a 14-day expedition. The team of four will focus research on various tools and methods that may be used by future astronauts on missions to asteroids, the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Mars.
“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,” exclaims NEEMO Project Lead Bill Todd. He continues, “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.”
The NEEMO 20 mission will be commanded by ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who spent 166 days in space aboard the International Space Station. So he will probably manage just fine for fourteen days underwater. He will be joined by NASA astronaut Serena Aunon, NASA EVA Management Office engineer David Coan, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Norishige Kanai, and two habitat technicians.
EARTH: A TRAINING GROUND FOR MARS
NEEMO is helping NASA prepare for future manned missions to Mars by utilizing conditions underwater that are similar to space. NASA’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program is doing the same thing, but on land.
The HI-SEAS mission is training and observing teams of scientists in a Mars-like area on the island of Hawaii to study how astronauts will fare on missions to the red planet.
Earth has many space-like environments. And, until spaceflight technologies improve and become less expensive, training in these space analogs is the best option for preparing teams for missions to alien worlds.