NASA Sends Astronauts Underwater to Train For Future Asteroid Missions

May 13, 2014 08:01 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

NASA really wants to send astronauts to an asteroid sometime in the 2020s, and preparations are already underway to make that goal a reality.

Astronauts Stan Love and Steve Bowen have spent over 62 hours between them in the vacuum of space on nine shuttle mission spacewalks. Their experience has helped them assist engineers currently working on trying to figure out what astronauts will need on NASA's next step toward Deep Space, according to a NASA press release.

NASA has started practicing the capture and exploration of an asteroid, a mission designed around find and pulling an asteroid into orbit around the Moon.

By wearing modified versions of the orange space shuttle launch and entry suits, Love and Bowen went underwater on May 9, in a 40-foot-deep swimming pool in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The pool helps provide the lack of gravity needed for NASA astronauts to prepare for spacewalks, according to the release.

"We're working on the techniques and tools we might use someday to explore a small asteroid that was captured from an orbit around the sun and brought back by a robotic spacecraft to orbit around the moon," Love said, according to the release. "When it's there, we can send people there to take samples and take a look at it up close. That's our main task; we're looking at tools we'd use for that, how we'd take those samples."

Once an asteroid is captures, astronauts will then be sent to collect samples from its surface.

The underwater chamber was designed with a duplicate of the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that the astronauts will be able to use to reach the asteroid, according to the release.

Astronauts won't be able to use tools geologists use in order to collect core samples or chips of rocks however. Instead, Bowen and Love tried a pneumatic hammer to see if a battery-powered version might be a good idea.

A modified version of the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) was also tested, which helped show that more alterations might be needed before anyone visits an asteroid.

"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."

Samples gathered can offer explanations on the formation of the solar system, according to the release.

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