Following its bold announcement that it will send astronauts in Mars, NASA is preparing for landings on asteroids by 2020 as one of its springboard to the Red Planet.
It may sound like a scene from the 1998 movie Armageddon, with the protagonist played by Bruce Willis in a race to stop an enormous asteroid from bringing doom to the Earth's helpless inhabitants. This time, however, it sounds like NASA is going to do the opposite. In fact, it will even capture a small asteroid and set it in an orbit around the Moon.
A robotic spacecraft will capture a stray asteroid orbiting the Sun and once it is in place in orbit of the Earth's lone satellite, a crew of astronauts will fly to personally take samples from it in a bid to uncover the answers about the Solar System's age and it's the mysteries behind its formation.
In a statement, astronaut Stan Love, one of the astronauts currently training for the ambitious space feat, said they have yet to determine which tools and techniques will be used for the mission, in the same way Willis' team used sophisticated drilling machines aptly designed for an altogether different environment.
So far, two astronauts have recently immersed into NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory pool donning modified versions of the orange "escape suits" to help the engineers find out what necessary methods will provide smooth ride for astronauts in Deep Space. One of them is Love and the other is Steve Bowen, and both of them have an impressive record of 62 hours of spacewalking from nine shuttle mission spacewalks.
The 40-feet-deep swimming pool at NASA's Johnson Space Center simulated the gravity-less environment of space, with a mockup of the Orion spacecraft slated to send the astronauts to the harbored asteroid, as well as a mockup of the unmanned spacecraft tasked to capture a small asteroid.
Typical geological techniques on Earth cannot be simply employed in vacuum of space, NASA said, as it could put the astronauts' life in danger. One cannot afford hammering rocks as it could shatter the thin glass of the astronaut's space suit. In this case, Love and Bowen are currently trying out substitutes, such as a battery-powered pneumatic hammer.
Moreover, engineers may have to modify the shuttle-heritage Advanced Crew Escape Suit, from its gloves and boots to the helmet, as the movement of the astronauts in space is crucial to the nature of the mission, which is mostly gathering of rock samples.
"We need some significant modifications to make it easy to translate," Bowen said. "I can't stretch my arms out quite as far as in the [space station space suit]. The work envelop is very small. So as we get through, we look at these tasks. These tasks are outstanding to help us develop what needs to be modified in the suit, as well."