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Finding NEEMO? Ask NASA

Astronauts gather for a photo outside the Aquarius underwater laboratory

Astronauts gather for a photo outside the Aquarius underwater laboratory during NEEMO, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project.

  • Underwater laboratory simulates space
  • Four people on 14-day mission

NASA has sent two astronauts, a veteran undersea engineer and an experienced scientist into the ocean depths off Florida’s east coast to test exploration concepts and learn more about working in an unforgiving, treacherous environment.

The 14th expedition of NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO, began on May 10.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut and veteran spacewalker Chris Hadfield leads the NASA team on the 14-day undersea mission aboard the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory near Key Largo. Aquarius is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Joining Hadfield is NASA astronaut and flight surgeon Thomas Marshburn, Lunar Electric Rover Deputy Project Manager Andrew Abercromby and Steve Chappell, a research scientist. Abercromby and Chappell work for Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering of Houston.

During NEEMO 14, the ocean floor will simulate aspects of another planet’s surface and a low-gravity environment. In October 2009, a team of aquanauts set the stage for NEEMO 14 by placing mock-ups near Aquarius of a lander, rover and small crane that simulates a robotic arm.

Image of a rover and astronauts working underwater during the NEEMO 12 mission

A remotely operated vehicle called Scuttle, was photographed during a session of the 12th NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission. Crewmembers visible in the background are assembling the Luna-sea structure, which is to simulate a tower that might have to be built on the Moon or Mars someday.

Outer space under the ocean

The NEEMO 14 crew are living aboard the underwater laboratory, venturing out on simulated spacewalks, operating the crane and manoeuvring the vehicles much like explorers would in setting up a habitat on another planet. As the aquanauts interact with these developing technologies, they will provide information and feedback to NASA engineers.

The undersea habitat "Aquarius" used by NEEMO crews

The undersea habitat "Aquarius" used by NEEMO crews.

The crew will simulate removing a mock-up of the Lunar Electric Rover from the lander, retrieve small payloads from the lander and the ocean floor, and simulate the transfer of an incapacitated astronaut from the ocean floor to the deck of the craft. The rover and lander mock-ups are similar in size to vehicles NASA is considering for future planetary exploration.

The lander mock-up is wider than a school bus is long and almost three times as high. It measures 45 feet wide and 28 feet high, including a 10-foot- high crane. The rover mock-up is slightly larger than a full-size SUV, standing eight feet tall and 14 feet long.

While inside Aquarius, the crew will perform life science experiments focused on human behaviour, performance and physiology. The mission also includes a study of autonomous crew work. There will be periods when there is limited communication between the crew and the mission control centre, much like what could happen during missions to the moon or Mars.

More information: NEEMO mission

NEEMO webcams

Adapted from information issued by NASA.