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NASA’s Deep Sea Training for Deep Space Explorers

What do the bottom of a blue ocean and the surface of a Red Planet have in common? Both are extreme environments.

A group of astronauts, engineers and scientists ventured to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean again this summer to prepare for future deep space missions and the journey to Mars. Isolating crew members at the bottom of the ocean simulates life and work for astronauts in microgravity environments like the International Space Station, or in spacecraft that will travel to asteroids and planets in the future. The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO-21) 16-day mission splashed down in the undersea Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Florida on July 21 and returned to the surface on Aug. 5.

NEEMO is a NASA analog mission that sends groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius, the world's only undersea research station, for up to three weeks at a time. Operated by Florida International University (FIU), Aquarius is located 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) off Key Largo in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is deployed next to deep coral reefs 62 feet (19 meters) below the surface.

During the 16-day NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 21 expedition, an international crew explored tools and techniques being tested for future space exploration by living in simulated spacecraft conditions and conducting simulated spacewalks outside of their undersea habitat, Aquarius. Inside Aquarius, the international crew conducted a variety of research and operations studies, such as testing a mini DNA sequencer that NASA astronaut Kate Rubins also tested aboard the International Space Station, and a telemedicine device that will be used for future space applications. During their simulated spacewalks, the crew collected samples for marine biology and geology studies, test software for managing operations, and participate in a coral restoration project. Throughout many of these tasks, the mission also tested communications delays similar to those that would be encountered on a mission to Mars.

The Aquarius habitat and its surroundings provide a convincing analog for space exploration. Much like space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live. NEEMO crew members, known as aquanauts, experience some of the same challenges there that they would on a distant asteroid, planet or moon. During NEEMO missions, the aquanauts are able to simulate living on a spacecraft and test spacewalk techniques for future space missions. Working in space and underwater environments requires extensive planning and sophisticated equipment. The underwater condition has the additional benefit of allowing NASA to "weight" the aquanauts to simulate different gravity environments.

A technique known as saturation diving allows the aquanauts to live and work underwater for days or weeks at a time. After twenty four hours underwater at any depth, the human body becomes saturated with dissolved gas. With saturation diving, divers can accurately predict exactly how much time they need to decompress before returning to the surface. This information limits the risk of decompression sickness. By living in the Aquarius habitat and working at the same depth on the ocean floor, NEEMO crews are able to remain underwater for the duration of their mission.

NASA is developing the technologies and systems to transport future explorers to multiple destinations, each with its own unique - and extreme - space environment. Future destinations may include near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and Mars and its moons. To prepare for these complex missions, NASA must conduct field tests in Earth-based extreme environments to plan, test and develop technologies that will help guide the future direction of human exploration of the solar system. For more information, click here.

Day1

Pictured at the end of Mission Day 1 are the NEEMO 21 aquanauts, clockwise from top: Matthias Maurer (ESA), Marc O Griofa (Teloregen/VEGA/AirDocs), NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Dawn Kernagis (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition), and Noel Du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School). Inside the Aquarius habitat are Florida International University Habitat Technicians Hank Stark (left) and Sean Moore (right). Photo credit: NASA/Karl Shreeves.

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