To get ready for a new mission to the moon NASA will be returning to the seafloor to try out new lunar technologies and test out potential new recruits.
On June 10th a team of aquanauts will embark on a mission to the bottom of the ocean floor to test key technologies and their own skills in preparation for a return to the moon. The 10-day NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) expedition is part of a plan to put boots back on the lunar surface by 2024. The Artemis missions to the moon, named after the sister of Apollo, have received over $1.6 billion in funding and this key stage will be to test out how well that money is being spent. This is not the first time NASA has used our oceans to prepare astronauts and test technologies for space missions. In fact this latest endeavour will be the 23rd NEEMO mission. So why is it so important for them to do this? Quite simply because being sent to live on the ocean floor is the closest thing to space travel you can experience whilst still on earth. But who’s going? Where will they be living? And just how similar are our oceans to the vast expanse of outer space?
Leading the NEEMO-23 mission will be the veteran Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency (ESA). Cristoforetti has spent 200 days in space as part of ESA expeditions 42 and 43 and holds the record for the longest space walk by a European. Her team will include NASA astronaut candidate Jessica Watkins who will be hoping to gain the experience needed to be included in the Artemis missions, marine bio-technician and research professor Shirley Pomponi and Csilla D’Agostino CEO of Ketone technologies. The group will be rounded off by two habitat technicians who are responsible for making their underwater home function properly. Not all of these amazing people will make it to the moon but their efforts on this expedition will help ensure that other get that opportunity in the near future.
Where are they going?
Their home for the 10-day expedition will be NOAA’s state of the art Aquarius Reef Base, the only underwater laboratory in the world. It sits 60ft deep on the seafloor of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo and on the edge of a large coral reef. It contains state of the art wet and dry labs for research, computer space, communal living areas as well as six bunks. Aquarius stays in contact with mission control on the mainland via a life support buoy containing a radio transmitter on the surface. It has a single airlock which divers first enter through when they dive down to the base or when they are exploring their surroundings during their time there. Living in the Aquarius base is in many ways very similar to living on a space station. It is tightly compact and full of condensed machinery and technology, it is surrounded by a deadly environment to humans and it must be completely self-sufficient and contain everything it needs to support life. The day to day life of an aquanaut is therefore very similar to that of an astronaut making it an ideal place to simulate space missions.
To find out more about Aquarius check out this awesome video tour
What will they be doing?
The team will spend their time split doing different work inside of the Aquarius base and exploring the underwater world surrounding it. “The daily seafloor traverses, or ‘extravehicular activities’ in space jargon, are jam-packed with technology and operations concept testing, as well as complex marine science. In the interior of Aquarius, aquanauts and astronauts will tackle an array of experiments and human research related to long duration space travel” said NEEMO project lead Bill Todd in a NASA statement. One of the main pieces of tech that is being tested is a new lunar surface drill that will be used to take cylindrical core samples of moon rock. In this case it will be sections of rock or coral but it is important to see that the device is firstly working correctly and secondly that the astronauts can use it floating in the water in conditions very similar to low gravity. As for research related to long duration space travel the aquanauts will be tracking sleep patterns as well as testing augmented reality to help train them in navigating their new habitat. But more importantly it mentally and physically prepares astronauts for living in space.
Expansive and unexplored
NASA use Aquarius and the NEEMO expeditions because of the strong similarities in conditions between the underwater world and space. Both environments are extremely expansive, dangerous and hard to survive yet alone thrive in. In his statement Bill Todd says that it is important to demonstrate “The close parallels of inner and outer space exploration” with the underwater missions. But perhaps more importantly the NEEMO missions highlight that we still have a long way to go in exploring our own oceans. We know less about the seafloor than the surface of the moon and yet we have less underwater laboratories here on earth than we do space stations in orbit. It is fantastic that as a species we look up and want to explore and it is becoming more apparent that space travel and habitation will become increasingly important in the future. But as well as using the ocean to prepare for space travel maybe we should be looking at space exploration as inspiration for diving deeper into our own oceans.