Caption: Artist’s Concept, Space Exploration Vehicle Use Comparison. Credit: NASA
Conspiracy theories abound that the Apollo landings all took place on a film set in California, but today NASA’s Desert RATS team begins a mission to asteroid Itokawa. They will land, rove and even undertake spacewalks, without ever stepping foot out of their home base at Johnson Space Center in Texas. This is no hoax however, but a simulated mission to test out NASA’s audacious plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.
The Desert RATS have been testing robots and other tools that could be used on future exploration missions since 1997, (this is their 15th mission) usually doing analog missions out in the field. “Desert” refers to the Arizona desert, where a lot of the team’s activities take place and “RATS” stands for “Research and Technology Studies.”
However, since they are now testing out a zero-G visit to an asteroid, the team will use mockups inside JSC’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, which offers a medley of tools and simulators that would be difficult to transport to a field test location.
For example, the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) is designed to both rove across a planetary surface on a wheeled chassis or fly in space using advanced propulsion systems. Four crew members will take it in turns to live in and operate the simulator to explore the asteroid.
The MMSEV can be put on a sled on an air-bearing floor to simulate the moves that the crew might feel during a real mission. There will also be a 50-second delay in voice transmission, going each way to simulate the light-speed travel time between Earth and the asteroid.
The crew can also undertake spacewalks using ARGOS (Active Response Gravity Offload System) an overhead gantry crane system that simulates the reduced gravity environment. In reality nothing would stop astronauts from just floating off the surface but NASA is thinking about using jetpacks, tethers, bungees, nets or spiderwebs to allow them to float just above the surface attached to a smaller mini-spaceship.
A team of scientists from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate will ensure proper scientific methods are applied to asteroid sample collection techniques throughout the 10 day mission.
Second image caption: ARGOS can be used to make spacewalkers feel as though they weigh 1/6 of their weight, as they would on the moon, or 1/3, as on Mars. Photo credit: NASA