The Moon? Boring. Mars? Meh. The next giant leap for mankind won't come in the form of an interplanetary trip, but rather a quest to the pile of rocks which weren't quite good enough to become planets. Yup, asteroids. And NASA's already started training for the trip.
The idea behind visiting an asteroid is that astronauts can explore the surface for minerals, and to gather knowledge about the oversized rocks should they ever end up en route to planet earth and need to be destroyed.
But NASA is also taking along an ESA astronaut, Tim Peake, who has gone into great detail about what the training regimen will involves for this quest (currently scheduled to take place in about 15 years). SPOILER ALERT: He'll spend a total of 12 days under 20 meters of water in the Florida Keys.
Living underwater is an excellent space analog – the crew can practice EVA (‘spacewalk') techniques using neutral buoyancy in water, whilst Aquarius offers an environment similar to a spacecraft: confined living space, total reliance on life support systems and no option for a quick return. The crew can only surface safely after 12 hours of decompression – to do otherwise would risk severe decompression illness or ‘the bends'.
The NEEMO 16 crew comprises NASA astronaut and mission commander Dorothy (Dottie) Metcalf-Lindenburger, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, Professor of Astronomy Steve Squyres and myself. In addition we will be supported by two habitat technicians who are also diving experts. The crew will spend 12 days living in Aquarius, conducting two EVAs each day. Like any space mission, there will be an experienced ground support team who will manage operations, communications and logistics from their Mission Control Centre (MCC) on dry land.
The real asteroid mission will rely heavily on the Orion spacecraft, which is currently in development. According to Peake, the journey to an asteroid could involve spending six months in a deep space habitat, and then once the astronauts arrive, they'll be able to stretch their legs and roll around in an exploration vehicle, collect samples and conduct tests. But for now, he'll have to settle for the underwater mission, slated to take place next month, in which he and his fellow crew members will lurk in jetpacks and DeepWorker submersible crafts. Awesome. [ESA, Telegraph]