UK astronaut Tim Peake makes 'asteroid splashdown'

Aquarius and underwater vehicles Deep water submersibles will serve as space exploration vehicles

British astronaut Tim Peake is going on a mission to an asteroid... at the bottom of the ocean.

"Major Tim" is joining Nasa's latest Neemo expedition to an underwater lab located near Key Largo, Florida.

He will spend 12 days in the Aquarius habitat with three crewmates, testing new tools and techniques that could be used on a real mission to a space rock.

Nasa is planning a huge new rocket to send an advanced manned capsule to an asteroid sometime in the 2020s.

Astronauts have long trained in deep pools to simulate the weightlessness of working in orbit, but the Neemo expeditions take that idea to another level, allowing crews to simulate extended periods off Earth but without actually leaving the planet.

"It's an excellent analogue for what we do in space," explained Major Tim, a former British Army Air Corps helicopter pilot.

"We'll even have a 50-second delay in our communications with Capcom [mission control], and friends and family."

Tim Peake Major Tim has extensive experience as a diver

The delay simulates the time it would take real signals to travel many millions of km across space from an asteroid.

Neemo is an acronym for Nasa Extreme Environment Mission Operations. The US space agency has been running the programme since 2001, using the 20m-deep Aquarius habitat as its test-bed facility.

Major Tim's expedition is the 16th in the programme, and "splashdown" - the moment the crew arrived at Aquarius - occurred at 12:00 EDT (17:00 BST) on Monday.

The crew is led by Nasa astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, and includes Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui and planetary sciences expert Steve Squyres. Prof Squyres is the principal investigator for the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit.

"It's been just awesome having Steve around," Major Tim told me just before he left.

"Every morning, he opens his laptop to look at the latest pictures from Opportunity on the surface of Mars. So, first thing we get a lecture on Mars from Steve, and then we all get our asteroid briefing for Neemo. It's fantastic."

President Barack Obama has set Nasa the target of landing a crew on an asteroid in 2025, or very soon after.

To get there, the agency is building the Space Launch System, a colossal rocket capable of putting in orbit all the tonnes of equipment that will be needed on such a venture.

The astronaut vehicle itself, known as Orion, is nearing its first test flight.

Steve Squyres and Tim Peake Steve Squyres, left, is the principal investigator for Nasa's Mars rovers

But the crew will require a strategy once they get to the asteroid. As big as many of these space rocks are, they're tiny compared with planets and moons. And that means their gravitational fields will be puny. You cannot simply walk on them. One step and you'd likely lift off into space again.

Crew members would either have to anchor themselves to the asteroid or use some kind of free-floating exploration vehicle that could work as a platform to get the astronauts close to the rock.

"These are some of the big questions we're trying to answer," said Major Tim.

"We will have deep-worker submersibles with us and they will be our space exploration vehicles, with robotic arms and foot plates on them, so we can attach ourselves and explore the asteroid, taking samples - soil samples, rock samples, etc.

"Nasa also wants to know what sort of team compositions are required. Is it better with one SEV [space exploration vehicle] or two SEVs, working in pairs or as individuals? We'll be coming up with all sorts of data that will shape Nasa's asteroid mission."

Major Tim still has to make his first real spaceflight.

He is in a competitive queue at the European Space Agency.

Selected as one of six new astronaut trainees in 2009, he is now waiting for a bunk on the space station to become available to him.

Astronaut at asteroid Working around a low-gravity body presents particular problems

This should happen in 2017 or 2019 at the absolute latest.

He will be hoping it happens sooner, of course, and has been following closely the progress of the California company SpaceX, which last month successfully sent an unmanned cargo capsule to the station.

SpaceX intends to put seats and a life-support system in its Dragon vehicle, so it can double up as an astronaut taxi.

The firm would then sell rides to Nasa, which currently has no means of its own to launch astronauts and is very restricted in the number of missions it can run to the orbiting platform.

With up to seven seats available in a Dragon, more opportunities to go into orbit are likely to open up.

"I would jump at the chance to fly in Dragon; I'd be the first to volunteer," said Major Tim.

"The SpaceX mission was a real inspiration, and has shown the way forward. It's time to let the commercial sector look after transport in low-Earth orbit, leaving Nasa free to go and explore beyond the station at places like asteroids."

Follow the Neemo expedition on Facebook. Tim Peake will also be tweeting.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 50.


    For maximum effect put the crew and their supplies in one half. Put all the heavy stuff , including engines, fuel, winches and anything not wanted on voyage in the other half.
    With the centre of rotation close to the engines the crew pod gets maximum moment arm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    #48 Robert Lucien

    Given the likely political and environmental objections a nuclear rocket would have to be built in orbit. We would need to get the raw materials there too.
    Regarding centrifugal gravity, replace the long shaft with cables and an elevator. Lighter and longer, to get more g with less coriolis effect. Cancel the rotation and reel in the two halves for manoeuvres.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    #42 Drunken Hobo
    -#39 Astronut -

    In any sensible manned Mars missions we would use nuclear rockets so that the crew would only have to spend a couple of months at most in zero gee. Also if you shape the craft as a long shaft with pods on either end and spin it on its long axis you get weak pseudo-gravity at the ends so there is less trouble with zero gee health issues anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Really sum up the UK space programme, non-existant. Anyone who goes into space had to take another Nationality and even then most end up playing games at the bottom of a tank - not real 'off world' travels!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #45 Wee-scamp
    "can I have a go as well?"

    If NASA or ESA say no, try SpaceX or Bigelow Aerospace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I spent most of the 70s operating deep water manned submersibles in support of oil and gas, oceanographic and other ops around the world so can I have a go as well?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    They cancelled the moon missions for the same reason, which doomed us to spending billions investigating the 'nothing' between the earth and the moon. Meanwhile back on Earth the starving are still starving, so that worked out well.
    Investing in technology brings economic wealth (so feeding the starving (which is exactly why China and India are so keen)) so it's not a total loss

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    #40 Robert Lucien
    " the vacuum leaves you with .. no friction - exactly the opposite of being under water."

    Space Shuttle astronauts used its manipulator arm. ISS astronauts tend to use tethers. In both cases an anchor seems necessary to exert any force on your workpiece.
    Another problem is inertia. Imagine being caught between two slowly converging assemblies weighing twenty tons each.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    39 Astronut - There's a cosmonaut that spent over 14 months in space in one trip, and another that's had a combined total of over 2 years in space! We already have a lot of information on the effects of long-term weightlessness in humans; the main problem is that once they reach Mars they'll struggle to walk. It's also not known if Mars' gravity is enough to let humans recover or live there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    "Aviation is not inherently dangerous but to an even greater extent than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect."

    Space is even more unforgiving. Training to survive the working environment must complement training to work therein.
    Oil rig operaters and divers already have the right personality traits and attitudes to make good space workers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Ha ha, my **stupid keyboard keeps missing letters #36 is about large scale not sale use of space! :D

    Training in space re:#36 wouldn't be difficult. Obviously there would be basic training on the ground first, I'm talking about EVA zero-gee training. - One of the big problems with space is that the vacuum leaves you with absolutely no friction - exactly the opposite of being under water.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Buoyancy does not recreate the physiologic effects of weightlessness as the internal organs still feel the effects of gravity.
    Simulation should be 9 months in Earth orbit followed by trip to Atacama desert where they live in a pressurised module and ‘Space suits’ at sea level pressure.
    Followed by another 9 months in Earth orbit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Can anyone explain why post 16 was removed? That's where, in reply to BluesBerry (10, "Who's paying for all this?") I said:

    A billion dollars of spending by NASA costs each US citizen only FOUR DOLLARS;
    Much more than this is spent on recreational activities like popcorn, etc. and of course the American military.

    The BBC has told me it was offensive and provocative/disruptive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #36 Robert Lucien
    "how do you train and monitor so many ... Maybe training in space itself?"

    NASA's approach, training underwater, still looks the way to go.
    Ab initio training in space might be too much like combat flying in WW1. Most of the pilots thrown into the fray died before they could learn to stay alive.
    Saturation divers are pretrained in the skills you need for space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    One of the things I'm spending time thinking about is how the world would cope with a larger sale space industry. Its quite easy to go to a scenario where there are several thousand people in space at once. Its the kind of scenario where how do you train and monitor so many - it certainly requires different techniques to what we do today. Maybe training in space itself?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Entropic #31
    "Mind you, post #27 would fit well under Richard Black's current Rio report".

    Yes, maybe it should....yet Earth is blue, not green. :)

    David Bowie's "Space Oddity" spoke to me of a man's inability to master his cruel environment.

    Our affect on the environment is not yet as great as some people believe. That's why NASA and Tim Peake had to go looking for a suitably hostile location.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The Aquarius habitat is an amazing and invaluable research center (I spent 5 days working out of it in 1994). It is run by some of the nicest and most professional people I have worked with but their funding is in question. So please, if you are from the US, contact your local politician and ask them to keep Aquarius running.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    #33 thefrogstar
    "Lighten up"

    Right enough. :-)

    Mind you, post #27 would fit well under Richard Black's current Rio report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    As the Barron Knights sang decades ago:

    Birth Control to Ginger Tom
    Birth Control to Ginger Tom
    Your miaow is higher since you've had it done

    (falsetto voice)
    This is Ginger Tom to Birth Control
    I'm feeling very frail
    And there's something gone from underneath my tail
    And I'm walking in the most peculiar way...


    Consult wikipedia and other sources for more lyrics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    28.Entropic man

    "Enough with the David Bowie jokes already! The man's trying to do important work and all you can do is make puns."

    Entropic, you are still in school-teacher mode. Lighten up. Science can be learnt through enjoyment, and if Jonathan Amos chooses to use David Bowie metaphors in this article, why shouldn't I?

    If you re-read my post #27, you might be able to spot a deeper meaning.


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