How to Explore an Asteroid

Artist's concept of anchoring to the surface of an asteroid. Image credit: NASA

The next big new mission for NASA may well be going to an Asteroid. To determine how best to explore asteroids in the future, NASA scientists and engineers are taking their experiments underwater in the 15th expedition of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO.

This year's NEEMO expedition, which will include the usual compliment of astronauts and engineers, is slated for October. Since this is the first mission to simulate a trip to an asteroid, there's a lot of work to do before the mission can start. To prepare, engineers have journeyed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo, Fla., to work through some of the concepts that will be tested in the fall.

NEEMO engineering crew diver simulates anchoring to an asteroid surface. Photo credit: NASA

"Even experts don't know what the surface of an asteroid is going to be like," said NEEMO Project Manager Bill Todd. "There may be asteroids that we don't even know about yet that we'll be visiting. So we're figuring out the best way to do that."

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 investigate three aspects of a mission to an asteroid: how to anchor to the surface; how to move around; and how best to collect data. Unlike the moon or Mars, an asteroid would have little, if any, gravity to hold astronauts or vehicles, so an anchor would be necessary. NEEMO 15 will evaluate different anchoring methods and how to connect the multiple anchors to form pathways. The aquanauts and engineers will study whether it's more efficient to join the anchors in a straight line or set them up similar to the spokes of a wagon wheel.


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