NASA's Desert RATS Move Indoors for Simulated Asteroid Mission

NASA's Desert RATS Move Indoors for Simulated Asteroid Mission

In April 2010, President Obama announced that the next destination for U.S. human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) will be a trip to an asteroid.  This week, NASA is simulating such a mission at Johnson Space Center (JSC).

The simulation is being conducted by NASA’s Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team,  Previous RATS exercises have been held in the Arizona desert, hence the nickname Desert RATS.   This year, however, NASA is conducting the simulation in Building 9 at JSC outside of Houston, TX because it has tools and simulators that would be difficult to transport to a desert location according to NASA.

Between the crane-based Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS) that allows astronauts to experience the equivalent of 1/3 gravity (g) as on Mars or 1/6 g as on the Moon, and virtual reality helmets, the RATS team will test out living and working on a simulated human mission to an asteroid. 

Asteroids have virtually no gravity, a special concern since “loose samples could drift away and an astronaut could be propelled away from the surface just by hitting a rock with a hammer,” NASA reports.

The President specified a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 in his April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and in his 2010 National Space Policy issued a few months later.  The asteroid mission would be a stepping stone to sending people to orbit — but not land on — Mars in the 2030s.   The President said he expects humans to land on Mars in his lifetime, but was not more specific.

The humans-to-an-asteroid mission does not appear to have garnered much support, however, and many human spaceflight advocates continue to hope that the Moon will return as the next destination beyond LEO.   Landing on the Moon — or Mars — would require additional funding, though, since landing systems would be needed.   The program NASA Is pursuing today at the direction of Congress is to build a big rocket (the Space Launch System) and a crew capsule (Orion), but not landing systems.  With the money expected to be provided to NASA in the coming years, the first SLS test is in 2017 and its next flight, carrying a crew in an Orion capsule, will not take place for four more years.   Where the money would come from to build systems to enable a human lunar landing is an open question.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to follow Presidential direction in planning for an asteroid mission.

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