Becoming an “aquanaut,” Prof. Steven Squyres, astronomy, plunged into the waters off Key Largo, Fla., on Oct. 20 to help NASA prepare for the first-ever asteroid exploration mission, scheduled to take flight in 2025.
Though the program was cut short Wednesday due to concerns about Hurricane Rita’s trajectory, Squyres spent seven days as part of a team at NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations program, which uses underwater conditions to study space exploration. The program was originally intended to last 13 days.
As part of the program, research teams inhabited a 400-square-foot underwater environment, the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory Base. At 62 feet underwater, Aquarius “provides a convincing analog to space exploration,” according to the program’s website.
Extreme Environment Mission Operations is NASA’s fifteenth NEEMO program, but the first time it has focused on asteroid exploration, according to Squyres. Although robots have explored asteroids in the past, humans will “be more effective,” Squyres said.
Squyres said the underwater base will help the crew, called NEEMO 15, test microgravity conditions that resemble the low-gravity conditions of asteroids.
“Nobody knows how to do field geology on an asteroid yet, so we have to come up with a completely new set of techniques for moving, anchoring and working on the asteroid surface,” he said.
As part of NEEMO 15, the crew is experimenting with tools like jet packs and booms to help discover the best methods of moving and anchoring in microgravity.
“Imagine trying to explore an asteroid when gravity won’t hold you in place,” he said.
The crew of NEEMO 15 includes Squyres, three astronauts — NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques — and two dive specialists.
“Astronauts are important because they have spacewalking experiences … Dive specialists are critical for safety reasons,” Squyres said.
As an astronomer and the lead scientist for NASA’s Rover mission to Mars, Squyres contributes field geology experience to the NEEMO team.
“Coming from a planetary science perspective, I can expand on how certain techniques of moving and anchoring could be useful for various geologic tasks,” he said.
Squyres also brings some diving experience to the team; in the 1980s, he embarked on a NASA dive mission in Antarctica that simulated ice conditions on Mars.
Squyres said that given his age — he is in his mid-50s — and lack of training as an astronaut, he doubts he will participate in the 2025 mission. He emphasized, however, the importance of the mission.
He explained that asteroids are abundant in metal and water and can improve human knowledge of the solar system.
“Asteroids have hit the Earth, and they will do it again unless we can deal with them. Asteroid exploration is about knowing the enemy,” he said.
In a Skype session from the underwater habitat, Squyres gave a lecture Wednesday morning to his Astronomy 1700: History of Exploration course, which he co-teaches with Prof. Mary Beth Norton, American history.
Squyres described the aquanaut experience as “challenging, fascinating and fun.”
“We fly over spectacular coral reefs and see beautiful fish on a jet pack. I’m having a blast,” he said.
The mission was terminated early when the crew received news on Wednesday that the Aquarius laboratory was in Hurricane Rina’s path.
“We accomplished more than half of the planned objectives,” Squyres said. “The unmet objectives will be rescheduled for NEEMO 16 in May.”
The NEEMO 16 team — a group that has not yet been chosen — will dive alongside small submarines to test whether space vehicles can transport and stabilize an astronaut, Squyres said.