Archive for Outer Space

NASA inspector blasts asteroid protection program



Image courtesy of NASA shows an artist’s concept of a broken-up asteroid. (REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout)

NASA’s effort to identify potentially dangerous space rocks has taken a hit.

On Monday, the space agency’s inspector general released a report blasting NASA’s Near Earth Objects program, which is meant to hunt and catalog comets, asteroids and relatively large fragments of these objects that pass within 28 million miles of Earth. The purpose is to protect the planet against their potential dangers.

Most near-Earth objects harmlessly disintegrate before reaching Earth’s surface. But there are exceptions, like the nearly 60-foot meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013, causing considerable damage.

In a 44-page report, Inspector General Paul Martin said the Near Earth Objects program needs to be better organized and managed, with a bigger staff.

NASA’s science mission chief, former astronaut John Grunsfeld, agreed and promised the problems will be fixed.

“NASA places a high priority on finding and characterizing hazardous asteroids to protect our home planet from them” he said in a statement.

According to the report, the program has an executive at NASA headquarters and two offices in Massachusetts and California, each with six employees.

For nearly a decade, the report noted, NASA has been tracking near-Earth objects bigger than 460 feet across. The goal was to catalog 90 percent by 2020.

The space agency has discovered and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 near-Earth objects since 1998, an estimated 10 percent. It does not expect to meet the 2020 deadline.

The program has insufficient oversight, Martin’s office concluded, and no established milestones to track progress. In addition, NASA needs to do a better job of overseeing the various observatories searching for near-Earth objects, and teaming up with other U.S. and international agencies, the report said.

NASA awards space taxi contract to Boeing and SpaceX



The space shuttle Atlantis leaves the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida November 2, 2012. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

NASA has awarded the highly-anticipated space taxi contract to Boeing and SpaceX,  a move which will end the agency’s reliance on Russian technology to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract aims to restore an American capability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station by the end of 2017. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have been transported to space on Russian-built Soyuz vessels.

“We know that going to space is hard,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center. “NASA and aerospace industry have accomplished hard things in the past.”

In addition to SpaceX and Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin were all in the running for the $6.8 billion contract.

During the press conference, Lueders explained that NASA’s deals with Boeing and SpaceX are worth $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively. “There’s a maximum of 6 missions under that contract value,” she added.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which recently completed its critical design review of integrated systems, was at the core of the company’s bid. SpaceX’s Dragon craft led its bid.

Saturn’s weird fast-changing ring baffles scientists



Among the interplay of Saturn’s shadow and rings, Mimas, which appears in the lower-right corner of the image, orbits Saturn as a set of the ever-intriguing spokes appear in the B ring. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

One of Saturn’s iconic rings looks much different today than it did just a few decades ago, and scientists aren’t sure why.

NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft spotted many bright clumps in Saturn’s F ring when they flew by the gas giant in the early 1980s. But observations made by the space agency’s Cassini probe from 2004 to 2010 reveal relatively few of the features, a new study reports.

“Saturn’s F ring looks fundamentally different from the time of Voyager to the Cassini era,” study lead author Robert French, of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, said in a statement. “It makes for an irresistible mystery for us to investigate.” [Photos of Saturn's Glorious Rings]

French and his team have a hypothesis that could explain what’s going on, and it’s tied to the number of Saturn “moonlets” found near the F ring over the decades.

The researchers think these tiny satellites, which are less than 3 miles wide, create the bright clumps when they plow into the densest parts of the F ring. Therefore, the drop in bright clumps may indicate a big decrease in the number of moonlets, the researchers said.

But why would the moonlets be more common in the Voyager era than in the time of Cassini? It may have to do with periodic alignments of Saturn’s 84-mile-long moon Prometheus and the F ring, researchers said.

Both the F ring and Prometheus lie near Saturn’s Roche limit — the orbital distance within which the gas giant’s powerful gravity rips small objects apart.

“Material at this distance from Saturn can’t decide whether it wants to remain as a ring or coalesce to form a moon,” French said.

Prometheus’ gravitational pull contributes to the chaos, sometimes spurring the generation of new moonlets and sometimes sending the little satellites to their doom, researchers said. Prometheus’ role in this regard is especially strong once every 17 years, thanks to a regular alignment in the orbits of the moon and the F ring.

The research team thinks this periodic alignment may lead to the generation of lots of moonlets, which would, in turn, produce many of the mysterious F-ring bright clumps. These clumps would fade over time, the researchers explained, because repeated collisions with ring material would eventually destroy the moonlets.

One such alignment of Prometheus and the F ring occurred in 1975 — just a few years before the Voyagers flew past Saturn, the scientists pointed out. If their theory is correct, Cassini may well see a resurgence of the bright clumps soon, as the effects of the 2009 alignment begin manifesting.

“Cassini’s continued presence at Saturn gives us an interesting opportunity to test this prediction,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who did not participate in the study. “Whatever the result, we’re certain to learn something valuable about how rings, as well as planets and moons, form and evolve.”

Need a tow … in space? Company looks to get satellites back on course


Is space about to get its own tow-truck service?

Well not exactly, but a new space-bound creation designed by Israel-basedEffective Space Solutions is coming close enough. The company’s plan is to grab communication satellites lost in space and take them to the appropriate orbit in the hope of extending their lifespan.

The company’s founder and CEO Arie Halsband told that the idea came to him when he learned about the high number of capable satellites sent each year to the “graveyard orbit,” a high-level orbit where satellites are purposely moved at the end of their operational life.

With over 25 years of experience in space technology, Halsband has taken the lead in developing small, high performance, low weight Israeli satellites.

His company has designed a micro-satellite, nicknamed the “De Orbiter” to help with the course corrections.

“The ‘De Orbiter’ will recognize the target communication satellite from a safe distance … [and] will approach in several steps until reaching the docking distance,” said Halsband. “Upon having a confirmation from the ground, the patented docking mechanism will dock the ‘De Orbiter’ to the communication satellite.”

Ion thrusters then move the satellites into the desired orbit.

If an emergency arises during the operation, the ‘De Orbiter’ can use “emergency stop” thrusters to prevent any damage to the craft.

The company has just started marketing its micro-satellite to potential clients after completing its preliminary design.

Halsband estimates there are currently 300 communication satellites in orbit. Some 20 of those are expected to retire this year and could possibly need the company’s service.

He wouldn’t specify exact pricing for using the “De Orbirter” yet, but suggested that “in the aerospace [industry], the cost goes by the weight – as we are much lighter and smaller, we will eventually be much less expensive than [competitors].”

Halsband aims to launch the “De Orbirter” by late 2016 or early 2017.

NASA’s robot army of ‘swarmies’ could explore other planets


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    The self-driving swarmie robots could be used to search alien surfaces one day.NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis

They may look like remote-controlled toy trucks, but a troop of new NASA robots could one day race across distant planets as a sort of space exploration vanguard.

The autonomous robots, which engineers have dubbed “swarmies,” are much smaller than other NASA robots like the Mars rover Curiosity. Each comes equipped with a webcam, Wi-Fi antenna, and GPS system for navigation.

The swarmies function in a way similar to an ant colony. When one ant stumbles across a food source, it sends out a signal to the rest of the colony, and then the ants work together to cart the food back to the nest. Engineers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida developed software that directs the swarmies to fan out in different directions and search for a specific, predetermined material, like ice-water on Mars. Once one of the rovers finds something interesting, it can use radio communication to call its robotic brethren over to help collect samples. [Photos: Top 10 Space Robot 'Selfies']

“For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot,” Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the project, said in a statement. “Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task. One of them can roll over and die and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.”

Working out a way to send humans on lunar or Martian exploration missions is complicated and expensive and those kinds of missions are likely still a long way off. Sending robots is an easier alternative, and NASA is working on a whole new generation of autonomous robotic explorers. NASA engineers have already dreamed up slithering snake-like robots that could explore Mars and deep-diving robots that could explore the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The swarmie tests are still in the preliminary stages, and NASA engineers are only driving the swarmies around the parking lots surrounding Kennedy’s Launch Control Center. Right now the robots are only programmed to hunt for barcoded slips of paper. Over the next few months, swarmie tests will also include RASSOR — a mining robot specially designed to dig into alien surfaces and search for interesting or valuable materials. The test will determine how well the swarming software translates to control other robotic vehicles.

Swarmies might also find a use on Earth, NASA officials said. The robots could aid in rescue missions following natural disasters or building collapses, crashes and other wreckage sites. The robots would also make perfect pipeline inspectors.

“This would give you something smaller and cheaper that could always be running up and down the length of the pipeline so you would always know the health of your pipelines,” Cheryle Mako, a NASA engineer who is leading the project, said in a statement. “If we had small swarming robots that had a couple sensors and knew what they were looking for, you could send them out to a leak site and find which area was at greatest risk.”

Northrop Grumman unveils concept for XS-1 military space plane



Artist’s concept of the space plane being designed by Northrop Grumman, with help from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, for DARPA’s XS-1 program.Northrop Grumman

The world is starting to get a better idea of what the U.S. military’s proposed new space plane might look like.

Last week, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman released artwork depicting its conception of the XS-1 space plane, which it’s designing under a $3.9 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Northrop Grumman is one of three companies competing for the right to build the unmanned XS-1, which is short for “Experimental Spaceplane.” The other two are Boeing and Masten Space Systems, both of which also won yearlong “Phase 1″ initial design contracts in July.

DARPA wants the XS-1 to make spaceflight much more routine and affordable. The reusable vehicle should be able to fly 10 times in a 10-day span and launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb. payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight, officials have said.

XS-1 will probably feature a reusable first stage and one or more expendable upper stages. The first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth to be used again; the upper stages will deploy payloads to orbit.

Northrop Grumman is teaming with other aerospace companies on its design, tapping Scaled Composites to head manufacture-and-assembly work and Virgin Galactic to lead XS-1 operation.

“Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo,” Doug Young, vice president for missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said in a statement.

“We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments,” he added.

Northrop Grumman is not alone in reaching out to other firms for assistance in developing an XS-1 design. Masten is working with XCOR Aerospace, and Boeing is teaming with Jeff Bezos’ secretive firm Blue Origin.

DARPA expects to hold a Phase 2 competition next year to see which company makes it to the flight-test stage of XS-1 development. (The agency only has enough money for one XS-1 contractor in the end.) Officials currently envision that the first orbital mission of XS-1 will take place in 2018.

UK to launch commercial spaceport by 2018



The concept art for the UK Spaceport expected to launch its first suborbital flight in 2018.U.K. Space Agency

The U.K. government is laying the groundwork for its first spaceport in anticipation of a growing space tourism demand and a growing space plane industry by 2030, according to a new timetable. Government officials also envision orbital launches from that country within the next 15 years.

According to the new timetable, unveiled at the Farnborough International Airshow last month, the U.K. is planning to build $85.5 million spaceport and anticipates a space tourism market worth $65 million each year, as well as a space plane industry worth $33.9 billion by 2030.

The timetable lays out a number of other specific dates: The spaceport could be operational from 2016; the first suborbital flight would occur in 2018; the first sub-orbital space plane satellite launch from the spaceport would take place in 2020; rocket engine testing for the orbital space plane would occur in 2026, and that space plane would be operational four years later. [Evolution of the Space Plane (Infographic)]

The rocket-engine testing refers to hybrid engines, which are used by the Skylon space plane, manufactured by U.K. company Reaction Engines.

A British spaceport
U.K. Space Agency Director General David Parker published the timetable at the Farnborough International Airshow’s Space Day Conference on July 15. He also signed a memorandum of cooperation for space plane operations with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation George Nield, and announced that Lockheed Martin will open a space technology office in the English town of Harwell in Oxfordshire.

Choosing a spaceport site
From now until October this year, the U.K. Space Agency is undertaking a public consultation about possible spaceport sites. Selection of a site could take place before the end of 2016. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has identified eight sites across the United Kingdom’s nations of England, Scotland and Wales after 18 months of work. Six of the sites are in Scotland, one is in Wales, and the one site in England is on the country’s southern coast, at Newquay Cornwall Airport. Newquay is known in the United Kingdom for its surfing.

Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer and vice president of business development of Mojave, California-based space plane developer XCOR Aerospace, spoke to at the Airshow about his company’s interest in one proposed site, Newquay. “Newquay is sort of interesting. It points right out to the water. You’re not flying over anything under rocket power, which is nice.” U.K. government officials interviewed Nelson and other XCOR staff in June and early July 2013 at Mojave, spending two to three days there, Nelson said. The officials also spoke to Virgin Galactic and Stu Witt, manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. [See an animation of the Lynx in flight]

Previously, potential users, such as Virgin Galactic, have favored Lossiemouth, in Scotland. A 2009 report into spaceport candidate locations for the U.K. Space Agency’s predecessor, the British National Space Centre (BNSC), found Lossiemouth to be the best site. Located in northern Scotland, Lossiemouth is on the coast of the North Sea and has a Royal Air Force base with a runway suitable for the types of launch systems used by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. That company had already identified Lossiemouth as a possible U.K. spaceport; in 2009, then Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn, who was born in Scotland, spoke of his hope for a spaceport in the location. The 2009 report did not set a date for constructing such a facility.

A September referendum on whether Scotland will remain a part of the United Kingdom could complicate that choice for a 2018 spaceport, however. If the yes vote in the referendum wins, Scotland could be an independent country by 2018. A poll last week by ICM Research found that 34 percent of Scottish voters would vote yes for independence, 45 percent would vote no and the remainder don’t know.

The $85.5 million spaceport price tag comes from a science report published in April by the U.K. Space Agency’s parent body, the Government’s Department for Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS). Parker told that the cost estimate for the spaceport was an informed guess. The BIS report also proposed a national space propulsion facility that would cost about $10 million.

The eight spaceport sites and the detailed timetable published at the Farnborough Space Day Conference come from the CAA’s report, “U.K. Government Review of Commercial Space Plane Certification and Operations,” released this month. The report’s timetable also envisages a number of other goals: wet lease agreements by 2016 under common FAA and CAA rules, pan-European space plane legislation regulation developed from 2016 and a vertical rocket launch site to be identified in northern Scotland by 2020. And from 2020 to 2030, the CAA expects space planes to be certified and no longer experimental, space plane operations to start from additional sites in the United Kingdom, and most U.K. spaceflights to use U.K. crews.

Whichever spaceport is selected, Xcor and Virgin Galactic are the most likely space plane developers to be in a position to launch from the spaceport in 2018. The report also identifies several other spaceport users: Airbus’ Spaceplane, Bristol Spaceplanes’ Spacecab, Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus rocket, Stratolaunch Systems’ air-launched system and Swiss Space Systems’ Sub-Orbital Aircraft Reusable vehicle. [See photos of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo]

Market research by the U.K. small satellite maker Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) calculated that the first year of space tourism operations would have 120 tourists with 150 tourists in year three. This assumed Xcor and Virgin Galactic were operating in the United Kingdom. It would mean revenue of $24 million by that year three, SSTL said. By year 10, SSTL expects more than 400 tourists and annual revenues of $65 million.

Red-tape barriers
Despite the United Kingdom-focused timeline, Xcor and Virgin employ U.S. rocket technology. The use of that technology outside of the United States is regulated under export controls. Called International Traffic in Arms Regulations or ITAR, it is the first obstacle to operating rocket-powered space planes outside of the United States. The U.K. Ministry of Defence has made progress on understanding this issue, said U.K. Space Agency Director for Growth, Applications and European Union Programs Catherine Mealing-Jones, speaking at the Space Day Conference.

Another regulatory issue is the legal process to allow the space planes to fly in U.K. airspace up to space. Under the Outer Space Treaty that the United Kingdom signed, governments are responsible for launches by their citizens. The U.K. Space Agency is the regulatory authority for the U.K. Outer Space Act 1986, and discharges the country’s obligations under the four outer-space-related treaties. However, Parker told that because suborbital space planes do not go into orbit, the treaty does not apply. Instead, Parker’s agency plans to treat space planes as experimental aircraft under U.K. and European aviation law. Passengers would have to agree to something like the informed consent concept that the FAA is using.

However, the report also states that the United Kingdom should not adopt the FAA approach and instead should remain in step with “future [European Union] developments.” The European Union (EU) could have space plane legislation within the next five years. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is an EU agency, and the United Kingdom is a member state of EASA. The EASA official drawing up the space plane legislation, Jean-Bruno Marciacq, told at the Space Day Conference that the legislative proposals are ready to go the European Commission’s (EC) Department of Mobility and Transport.

The delay has been due to the EU’s European Parliament elections, held every five years.

NASA eyes robotic space gas stations for satellites



The Remote Robotic Oxidizer Transfer Test (RROxiTT) robot demonstrated a way for future servicing satellites to transfer oxidizer to a satellite in need of refueling, at the Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility.NASA

NASA wants to create a robotic gas station in space.

While that might call to mind visions of interstellar starships, the unmanned depot won’t actually be used to refuel rockets leading to the outer solar system or other worlds. Instead, it will service satellites orbiting Earth.

Thousands of satellites currently circle the Earth, transmitting everything from GPS navigation signals to weather forecasts to television shows, and all of them need fuel to maneuver in orbit. Without a way to refuel these aging machines, many satellites that could otherwise provide many more years of service break down and are retired. [Video: NASA Tests Robotic Refueling Tech]

NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland teamed with the Kennedy Space Center (in Florida) in 2011 to concoct a way to refuel satellites as they zip around the planet. Under their solution, this refueling will be carried out robotically.

By creating this new technology, “NASA hopes to add precious years of functional life to satellites and expand options for operators who face unexpected emergencies, tougher economic demands and aging fleets,” NASA’s Bob Granathwrote in a statement.

This robotic technology is not limited to fueling, though. NASA can also use it to fix malfunctioning satellites and build entirely new structures in outer space.

The partnership between Goddard and Kennedy has been fruitful thanks to each organization’s special capabilities. Kennedy’s long history of preparing spacecraft for launch, for instance, meant that it had a lot of experience with loading propellant. In addition, because of Kennedy’s involvement, “project participants were able to use existing equipment, facilities and excess Space Shuttle Program hardware, saving millions of dollars in development costs,” NASA said.

Goddard, meanwhile, focused on the robotics. In fact, they recently shipped a robotic arm to Kennedy, 800 miles away, to test the system’s remote-control capability. During the test, the remote robot operator, located at Goddard, connected the end of the robot arm to a valve on the side of a simulated satellite, which was located at Kennedy. The Kennedy team then made sure that the nitrogen tetroxide, a substance commonly used in spacecraft, flowed smoothly through the valve.

One beneficial side effect of refueling satellites in orbit is that it lessens the amount of dangerous space junk in the area just above Earth’s atmosphere. Instead of having dead satellites floating around uncontrolled, engineers on the ground can extend their lives with refueling, putting off costly launches and slowing the rate of material sent into space. At the geosynchronous orbit level, a region 22,236 miles above Earth, there are more than 100 government-owned spacecraft and 360 “commercial communication satellites.”

Therefore, “the capability to refuel and repair satellites at this orbit could make GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] more sustainable and help mitigate orbital debris problems,” officials with NASA’s Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office wrote on their website.

NASA Mars mission to try to turn Martian air into key rocket fuel ingredient: oxygen



This undated graphic provided by NASA shows the Mars 2020 Rover. NASA plans to make oxygen on Mars.(AP Photo/NASA)

NASA plans to make oxygen — a key ingredient of rocket fuel — on Mars early next decade.

Space agency officials unveiled seven instruments they plan to put on a Martian rover that would launch in 2020, including two devices aimed at bigger future Mars missions.

The $1.9 billion rover will include an experiment that will turn carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen. NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said the oxygen could then be used to make rocket fuel and for future astronauts to breathe. Taking fuel to Mars for return flights is heavy and expensive.

NASA also plans to collect interesting rocks, put them in sealed vials for future flights to pick them up and return them to Earth for detailed study.

Astronauts simulate deep-space mission in underwater lab


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    An unidentified crew member participates in a NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission.NASA TV

Plenty of astronauts practice spacewalks in the water, but a crew currently living in an underwater lab plans to introduce a surprising twist to its aquatic excursions: They will create a 10-minute communications delay with Mission Control, simulating what speaking with people on Earth could be like in deep space.

The four astronauts participating in the nine-day NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 18 mission will perform underwater “spacewalks” in which they pretend to be on an asteroid far from Earth, where radio communications between the two locales would take minutes, not seconds, as communication from the International Space Station does.

They will do a spacewalk “circuit,” in which crew members will make a rough circle of the area, aiming to come back to the same spot by the time the 10 minutes are up. By then, Mission Control can give astronauts instructions on which spots to sample, crew members said during a news conference Wednesday July 23. [9 Coolest Mock Space Missions]

“We’ll be testing out those tools if we did go to an asteroid,” said Jeanette Epps, a NASA astronaut who is part of the NEEMO 18 crew. NASA officials hope to send astronauts to an asteroid robotically pulled into orbit around the moon sometime in the mid-2020s.

Epps spoke to members of the press from 62 feet underwater in the Aquarius lab off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet are also living and working in the lab.

Adaptability is key

Although the mission is a simulation, malfunctions do occur sometimes. Communications problems between the “spacewalkers” and Mission Control affected operations earlier in the mission, said Vande Hei.

“Thomas and I were supposed to spend the entire time doing experiments, while Aki and Jeannette were doing the spacewalk, but because of the communications problems, I had to abort my science,” he said. “Thomas went ahead and did them all, which was great, and I focused on the spacewalks.”

There are many similarities to space in this confined environment, ranging from the need to balance science tasks with maintenance tasks, to living together in close quarters, to having the time tightly scheduled, the astronauts noted.

There is also significant international collaboration, with astronauts from three partner agencies working together this time in the NEEMO 18 crew. When asked by a journalist how space relations are with Russia amid the Ukraine crisis, the astronauts emphasized all was well and that working together is required in space.

“I hope the future holds a lot of cooperation,” Vande Hei said. “The fact we have an international program to explore space has helped us keep the program going between administrators, and regardless of what is going on politically.”

Experiments and cubbyholes

The experiments astronauts are doing during the mission, which began Monday July 21, range from the physical to the behavioral. For example, each of the crew members sports a sensor that records how close the crew members work with each other inside the school-bus-size habitat.

Communications with NEEMO Mission Control is usually constant, and there is the ability to send items to and from the habitat as needed. Also living inside the habitat are two support staff who are assisting with Aquarius maintenance and systems, as required. The crew members also have Internet and phone service to talk with family and friends.

While space is tight in the habitat, Epps said there is a “pretty big” cubbyhole where astronauts can store their T-shirts, shorts, underwear, regular toiletry items and anything more personal. “We’re not really deprived of much,” she said.