NASA crew trains for mission to asteroid

Five NASA volunteers have begun rehearsing for an expedition to an asteroid. The crew of scientists and flight controllers are living out Bruce Willis’s role in the hit disaster movie Armageddon, though they will never leave the Earth.

The simulated view of an asteroid close-up from the Desert Rats' "spaceship"
The simulated view of an asteroid close-up from the Desert Rats’ “spaceship”. Credit: NASA

The practice run by three men and a women aboard a mock-up of a Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) will help the space agency prepare for an actual flight to a giant space rock that threatens Earth. NASA has been set a goal of flying astronauts to an asteroid by 2016 before manned missions are made to the Red Planet Mars.

The test team, dubbed the Desert RATS, will take turns to spend three days and two nights at a time in special quarters inside their futuristic spaceship.

As well as the usual flight and navigation controls, it has a video wall around the vehicle’s windows to simulate the surface of a giant asteroid as they fly around it.

The prototype SEV is being powered by a self-generating 3 kilowatt fuel cell system that engineers hope will demonstrate the fuel cells’ viability as a long-term power source in space.

The experience will seem very real because NASA are using actual video imagery taken by Japan’s Hyabusa probe of an asteroid called Itokawa that it explored close up from 2003 to 2007.

The SEV concept is designed to be flexible depending on the destination. Its pressurized cabin is designed to be used both for surface exploration of planetary bodies, including Mars, as well as spaceflights. They will allow astronauts to work in a shirtsleeve environment but there are special zones called “suitports” where they can get dressed for a spacewalk in just ten minutes.

The Desert RATS get their name because earlier tests have been carried out in the Arizona desert. But this mission is being carried out at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Building Nine at the centre has been converted to hold a number of simulators to test various techniques on the ten-day mission.

Tasks will include simulated space walks, suspended from a special crane-based Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), to get the Desert Rats used to exploring the asteroid.

An artist's impression of spacecraft rendezvous with an asteroid
An artist’s impression of a spacecraft rendezvous with an asteroid. Credit: NASA

They will wear a virtual-reality helmet and gloves to simulate movement on a virtual asteroid surface where the force of gravity will be very slight due to the small size.

Such low-gravity environments present special obstacles for collecting and holding on to samples because they could drift away. There is also the danger that an astronaut could be propelled away from the asteroid’s surface just by hitting a rock with a hammer.

The crew for the test “flight” are Dave Coan, Trevor Graff, Liz Rampe, Allison Bollinger and Marc Reagan. Trevor, a geologist, blogged: “As a scientist, it’s great to be a part of helping evaluate and develop the equipment, techniques, and strategies that will eventually take us to places like asteroids and on to Mars!”

You can follow the Desert RATS on Facebook and Twitter as well as their own NASA website.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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