Asteroid Splashdown

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British astronaut Tim Peake is going on a mission to an asteroid… at the bottom of the ocean.

“Major Tim” is joining Nasa’s latest Neemo expedition to an underwater lab located near Key Largo, Florida.

He will spend 12 days in the Aquarius habitat with three crewmates, testing new tools and techniques that could be used on a real mission to a space rock.

Nasa is planning a huge new rocket to send an advanced manned capsule to an asteroid sometime in the 2020s.

Astronauts have long trained in deep pools to simulate the weightlessness of working in orbit, but the Neemo expeditions take that idea to another level, allowing crews to simulate extended periods off Earth but without actually leaving the planet.

“It’s an excellent analogue for what we do in space,” explained Major Tim, a former British Army Air Corps helicopter pilot.

“We’ll even have a 50-second delay in our communications with Capcom [mission control], and friends and family.”

The delay simulates the time it would take real signals to travel many millions of kms across space from an asteroid.

Neemo is an acronym for Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations. The US space agency has been running the programme since 2001, using the 20m-deep Aquarius habitat as its test-bed facility.

Major Tim’s expedition will be the 16th in the programme, and, weather permitting, he will “splashdown” on Monday.

The crew is led by Nasa astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, and includes Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui and planetary sciences expert Steve Squyres. Prof Squyres is the principal investigator for the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.

“It’s been just awesome having Steve around,” Major Tim told me.

“Every morning, he opens his laptop to look at the latest pictures from Opportunity on the surface of Mars. So, first thing we get a lecture on Mars from Steve, and then we all get our asteroid briefing for Neemo. It’s fantastic.”

President Barack Obama has set Nasa the target of landing a crew on an asteroid in 2025, or very soon after.

To get there, the agency is building the Space Launch System, a colossal rocket capable of putting in orbit all the tonnes of equipment that will be needed on such a venture.

The astronaut vehicle itself, known as Orion, is nearing its first test flight.

But the crew will require a strategy once they get to the asteroid. As big as many of these space rocks are, they’re tiny compared with planets and moons. And that means their gravitational fields will be puny. You cannot simply walk on them. One step and you’d likely lift off into space again.

Crew members would either have to anchor themselves to the asteroid or use some kind of free-floating exploration vehicle that could work as a platform to get the astronauts close to the rock.

“These are some of the big questions we’re trying to answer,” said Major Tim.

“We will have deep-worker submersibles with us and they will be our space exploration vehicles, with robotic arms and foot plates on them, so we can attach ourselves and explore the asteroid, taking samples – soil samples, rock samples, etc.

“Nasa also wants to know what sort of team compositions are required. Is it better with one SEV [space exploration vehicle] or two SEVs, working in pairs or as individuals? We’ll be coming up with all sorts of data that will shape Nasa’s asteroid mission.”

Major Tim still has to make his first real spaceflight.

He is in a competitive queue at the European Space Agency.

Selected as one of six new astronaut trainees in 2009, he is now waiting for a bunk on the space station to become available to him.