A team of about 150 engineers, scientists, astronauts, researchers and students started work this week on the first of several deep-space mission scenarios, part of an annual NASA field expedition called Desert Research and Technology Studies, or Desert RATS.

Staged from Black Point Lava Flow in the northern Arizona desert, the project is an opportunity to flesh-out plans, test equipment and practice techniques for a variety of proposed human space exploration missions. This year’s campaign includes four asteroid mission scenarios, reflecting NASA’s shift from lunar exploration to a planned asteroid visit, targeted for the mid-2020s.


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NASA’s Mission Control Center is participating in this year’s simulation, along with Europe’s Space Research and Technology Center in Norway. A communications time lag, which simulates what astronauts and ground controllers would experience during an actual mission at an asteroid, is part of the exercise.

“Fifty seconds does not sound like much, but it’s crazy-long to have a conversation,” Jeff Stone, the NASA mission operations director who leads a 12-person team in Houston, said in an article in last week’s Aviation Week and Space Technology. “It takes a whole different mindset.”

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Technologies being tested in the 2011 Desert RATS mission include:

  • The Deep Space Habitat, which combines a NASA’s prototype space habitat with an inflatable, student-built loft called an X-Hab. The habitat provides crew living and work space.

  • NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle. Sans wheels, which were needed for last year’s simulations to the surface of the moon, the vehicle could be transformed for asteroid exploration by mounting it on a flying platform, says NASA.

  • Robonaut 2/Centaur 2. Mounted on a wheeled base called Centaur 2, NASA’s Robonaut 2 robotic astronaut assistant has been reborn as R2C2. The droid could be tasked to scout areas for potential crew visits or assist astronauts in spacewalks.

  • The Extravehicular Activity Information System, which is a suite of prototype electronic  devices to help with future spacewalks.


Desert RATS runs through Sept. 12.

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Image: No place like… Arizona. An astronaut and a geologist don spacesuits to test an unpressurized version of a lunar rover concept as part of the 2008 Desert RATS campaign at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona. Credit: NASA