NASA Testing Gear to Send Humans Into Space to Explore Asteroids

NASA is trying out specialized equipment that will help astronauts someday be able to capture an asteroid and redirect its orbit so scientists can study it.

By the 2020s, NASA proposes to send humans into space to capture and redirect small asteroids so that they can be studied more intensely, but to do that, some specialized equipment will be necessary. As part of that future project, NASA is today experimenting with how to modify and finesse some existing astronaut gear to find ways to use it on the asteroid mission.

Capturing an asteroid and redirecting it into an orbit around the Earth's moon may certainly sound like science fiction, but it's not. Instead, it's just one of the latest ideas the space agency is pursuing.

The latest testing earlier in May involved how existing Advanced Crew Escape Suits (ACES), which will be worn by astronauts in the Orion spacecraft that will take them on their mission to capture an asteroid, could be modified to allow the astronauts to leave the Orion capsule for space walks in pursuit of an asteroid, said Jonathan Bowie, the project manager for the Asteroid Re-direct Crewed Mission Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) project.

"The ACES are not meant for EVAs, but are meant for survival during launch, re-entry and [emergency flight] aborts," Bowie told eWEEK in an interview. Because NASA is trying to minimize cargo weight as much as possible for the mission, additional spacesuits built specifically for EVAs won't be carried on the spacecraft, meaning that the ACES will have to be adapted for use during spacewalks, as well, he said. Such a scenario has been done before by NASA in the mid-1960s when Gemini astronauts conducted brief spacewalks using the same spacesuits they wore during launch and landing.

To see how the ACES will work on an asteroid mission, NASA astronauts have been testing them underwater in a special 40-foot-deep swimming pool in the agency's neutral buoyancy lab to see if they are workable for their intended use, according to Bowie. In the special pool, NASA built mock-ups of the Orion spacecraft and of the space vehicle that will capture and re-direct asteroids for the mission.

Those tests, the fifth and last this year on mission equipment, have turned up intriguing results so far.

"The suits had never before been used in neutral buoyancy lab," said Bowie. "So we did a test with river rocks to simulate the asteroid. But one crew said that it was not a good simulation because gravity works with the rocks" and kept them from being weightless, as they would be in space.

NASA researchers contemplated the problem and soon found a plastic that exhibits almost the same density of water, said Bowie. "So on the last test, they then had neutrally buoyant rocks that flew away when the crew touched them. That was one of the things we never thought of, that we needed rocks that float. When we did [the experiment again] in the pool, it looked exactly like you'd expect it to look in space."

The astronauts have been testing other equipment, as well, to find answers to mission tasks that aren't built into the Orion spacecraft, according to Bowie. Among those tasks is the need for the spacecraft to be able to allow the astronauts to leave its cozy confines for the EVAs that will feature the asteroid research. For Orion, that is a capability that's not built-in.

The craft only carries enough oxygen into space to allow the crew to depressurize the cabin once, if needed, Bowie said. The spacewalks, however, mean that enough oxygen is needed so the crew can refill the cabin with the life-sustaining element at least three times during an asteroid mission.