The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project (NEEMO) sends groups of NASA employees and contractors to live in Aquarius underwater laboratory for up to three weeks for studying human survival in preparation for future space exploration.

Aquarius, an underwater habitat located near Key Largo, Florida, is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the National Undersea Research Center (NURC) at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington as a marine biology study base.

NASA has used it since 2001 for a series of missions, usually lasting 10 to 14 days, with research conducted by astronauts and others NASA employees. The crew members are called aquanauts instead of divers, and they perform extra-vehicular activites in the underwater environment. Since 2001, NEEMO has completed 14 missons, with 1 through 13 primarily for astronaut training.

NEEMO 14 tested equipment and operational concepts for space exploration. NEEMO 15, scheduled for Oct 17 to 26, 2011, will continue this trend by testing equipment and operations required for exploration of Near-Earth Asteroids. During the week of May 9 to 15, the NEEMO 15 support team is conducting engineering evaluations in the Aquarius undersea research laboratory in Key Largo, Florida.

NASA is using a capability-driven approach to new concepts of human exploration for multiple destinations in our solar system; one of those destinations are near-Earth asteroids. For NASA, Aquarius provides a convincing analog to space exploration, and NEEMO crew members experience some of the same tasks and challenges underwater as they would in space.

The crew of NEEMO 15 from October 17 to 26 will leave the comforts of surface life, and immerse themselves in an undersea world of adventure. This will not be a vacation, as nearly every moment of their 10-day mission will be filled with tests and operations, designed to help NASA understand the factors relevant to actual space missions.

The purpose of the engineering evaluations conducted during May 9 to 15 is to understand the equipment, techniques and test concepts that will be implemented in the October NEEMO 15 mission, to make sure that all systems are ready for more rigorous testing when the crew will be living full-time in the Aquarius undersea habitat.

NEEMO 15 will focus on three different aspects of a mission to an asteroid surface. The first is anchoring to the surface of the asteroid. Unlike the moon or Mars, an asteroid would have little, if any, gravity to hold astronauts or vehicles to its surface, so an anchor would be necessary.

To move around on the surface of an asteroid will require a method of connecting multiple anchors to form pathways. The best way in which to connect these anchors will be the second aspect of a near-Earth asteroid mission addressed by NEEMO 15.

Finally, since NASA's purpose in visiting an asteroid would be for scientific research, the third aspect of this mission investigated by NEEMO 15 would be different methods of sample collection.

Get a glimpse of underwater activities conducted by NEEMO aquanauts: