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NASA kicks off undersea mission for future asteroid exploration

WASHINGTON, June 13 — An international crew of aquanauts descended to an undersea research base off the Florida Keys Monday, where the team will spend 12 days testing concepts for a potential asteroid mission, U.S. space agency NASA announced.

The four adventurers entered the Aquarius research station — which sits 62 feet (19 meters) down in the ocean about 3.5 miles ( 5.6 kilometers) off Key Largo — at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) Monday, NASA officials said.

The expedition is the 16th excursion of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). Because NEEMO missions put participants in a hostile, alien environment, they're good analogs for expeditions to asteroids, planets, moons or other space destinations, officials said.

"We're trying to look out into the future and understand how we 'd operate on an asteroid," NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt, NEEMO principal investigator, said in a statement. "You don't want to make a bunch of guesses about what you'll need and then get to the asteroid to find out it won't work the way you thought it would. NEEMO helps give us the information we need to make informed decisions now."

The NEEMO 16 mission will focus on three areas related to asteroid missions. The crew of aquanauts will investigate communication delays, restraint and translation techniques, and optimum crew size. The isolation and microgravity environment of the ocean floor allows the NEEMO 16 crew to study and test concepts for how future exploration of asteroids might be conducted.

NASA's Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rocket, which currently are in development, will allow people to begin exploring beyond the boundaries of Earth's orbit. NASA's first human mission to an asteroid is planned for 2025. (PNA/Xinhua) DCT/CTB/mmg

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