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Exploring an Asteroid Without Leaving Earth

Exploring an Asteroid Without Leaving Earth

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You may remember that back in February, four crew members lived and worked inside our Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA). That crew, made up of 4 women, simulated a 715-day journey to a Near-Earth asteroid. Then in May, a second crew of 4 – this time, 4 men, launched on their simulated journey to that same asteroid.  These 30 day missions help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. Studies like this at our Johnson Space Center prepare us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.
We now have a third crew, living and working inside the HERA. This is the spacecraft’s 11th crew. The mission began on June 11, and will end on August 10.

The crew members are currently living inside this compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 30 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.

The HERA XI crew is made up of 3 men and 1 woman selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including the same criteria for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:

• Tess Caswell

• Kyle Foster

• Daniel Surber

• Emmanuel Urquieta

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What will they be doing?

The crew will test hardware prototypes to get “the bugs worked out” before
they are used in off-Earth missions. They will conduct experiments involving
plants, brine shrimp, and creating a piece
of equipment with a 3D printer. After their visit to an asteroid, the crew will
simulate the processing of soil and rocks they collected virtually. Researchers
outside of the spacecraft will collect data regarding team dynamics, conflict
resolution and the effects of extended isolation and confinement.

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How real is a HERA mission?

When we set up an analog research investigation, we try to mimic as many of
the spaceflight conditions as we can. This simulation means that even when communicating
with mission control, there will be a delay on all communications ranging from
1 to 5 minutes each way, depending on how far their simulated spacecraft is
from Earth.

Obviously we are not in microgravity, so none of the effects of microgravity
on the human or the vehicle can be tested. You can simulate
isolation to a great degree – although the
crew knows they are note really isolated from humanity, the communications
delays and ban from social media help them to suspend reality. We emulate confinement
and the stress that goes along with it.

Scientists and researchers use analogs like HERA to gather more data for
comparison to data collected aboard the space station and from other analogs so
they can draw conclusions needed for a real mission to deep space, and one day
for a journey to Mars.            

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A few other details:

  • The crew follows a timeline that is similar to one used for the
        ISS crew.
  • They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This
        includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercises.  
  • They will be growing and taking care of plants and
        brine shrimp, which they will analyze and document.

Past HERA crew members wore a sensor that recorded heart
rate, distance, motion and sound intensity. When crew members were working
together, the sensor would also record their proximity as well, helping
investigators learn about team cohesion.

Researchers also learned about how crew members react to stress by recording
and analyzing verbal interactions and by analyzing “markers” in blood and
saliva samples.

As with the 2 earlier missions this year,
this mission will include 22 individual investigations across key human
research elements. From psychological to physiological experiments, the crew
members will help prepare us for future missions.

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Want a full, 360 degree look at HERA? Check out and explore the inside of the habitat.

For more information on our Human Research Program, visit: www.nasa.gov/hrp.

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