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'Aquanauts' test tools for asteroid mission

Jenny Winder, News Writer
May 11, 2014, 15:15 UTC

Sen—Astronauts Stan Love and Steve Bowen went underwater on 9 May, in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to help engineers determine what astronauts will need on the agency’s planned mission to send astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s.

Wearing modified versions of the orange space shuttle launch and entry suits, the two men entered the 12-metre (40ft) deep swimming pool that helps mimic the lack of gravity in orbit to allow astronauts to practise for spacewalks.

A mockup of the Orion spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the asteroid, docked to a replica of the robotic spacecraft that will be used to capture an asteroid and bring it into a stable orbit near the Moon, provided the backdrop for the simulated spacewalk.

“We’re working on the techniques and tools we might use someday to explore a small asteroid that was captured from an orbit around the Sun and brought back by a robotic spacecraft to orbit around the Moon,” Love said.

“When it’s there, we can send people there to take samples and take a look at it up close. That’s our main task; we’re looking at tools we’d use for that, how we’d take those samples.”

Astronauts Stan Love and Steve Bowen discuss their work underwater to test tools and techniques for exploring an asteroid. Credit: NASA TV

One of the primary goals of visiting an asteroid will be to obtain a core sample that shows its layers, intact, that could provide information on the age of the Solar System and how it was formed.

But the tools geologist use to collect core samples or even chips of rocks aren’t a good idea in space. Swinging a hammer in front of your face isn’t safe when there is a vulnerable sheet of glass between you in your helmet that is essential to keep you alive. Instead Love and Bowen tried out a pneumatic hammer to give them a feel for whether a battery-powered version might be useful.

They also evaluated a version of the spacesuit that could be worn on an asteroid. Orion astronauts already needed a launch and entry suit to protect them during the most dynamic phases of their flights.

So, rather than add to the weight Orion has to carry into orbit and take up additional space inside the crew module, engineers have been working to turn the shuttle-heritage Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) into something suitable for spacewalks.

Working through some of the tasks the suit will need to accommodate on an asteroid helps the astronauts advise the engineers on what still needs improvement.

“We need some significant modifications to make it easy to translate,” Bowen said. “I can’t stretch my arms out quite as far as in the [space station space suit]. The work envelope is very small. So as we get through, we look at these tasks. These tasks are outstanding to help us develop what needs to be modified in the suit, as well.”

NASA is already working to identify an asteroid that could be reached by a robotic mission to capture it and bring it into a stable orbit around the Moon. Once it is there, the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket will launch a crew of astronauts to explore it and gather samples.

The strategy makes good use of capabilities NASA already has, while also advancing a number of technologies needed for longer-term plans, including sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Astronauts Stan Love and Steve Bowen practice climbing out of the Orion spacecraft and taking samples from an asteroid in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA TV