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October 17, 2011

For many, 10 days of diving in the Florida Keys would be the ultimate getaway. But for a crew of astronauts and engineers, it’s only a step toward a more exotic getaway: a trip to an asteroid.

If everything is on schedule, the crew of NEEMO 15 will head for the underwater laboratory known as Aquarius this week. It’s about 60 feet down, next to a coral reef a few miles off Key Largo. It’s used mainly for studying the oceans. This year, for example, scientists have used Aquarius to study how coral reefs are affected by higher levels of acidity in the oceans.

But NASA uses the facility for Project NEEMO — NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. It’s designed to develop tools and techniques for space missions — particularly those to other bodies in the solar system. Over the last decade, 14 crews have spent up to three weeks at a time in the aquatic lab.

This crew will practice for a trip to an asteroid — a space exploration goal established by President Barack Obama.

In particular, they’ll test ways to anchor themselves as they work. Asteroids are so small that they have little surface gravity. So explorers will have to tie themselves to the surface to keep from drifting off into space. The NEEMO crew will try several approaches, and see which one is the easiest to work with.

The crew will live aboard the underwater lab for about nine days, supported by a full team at the surface — a “mission control” for a trip to an alien world.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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