Simulation and preparation of surface EVA in reduced gravity at the Marseilles Bay subsea analogue sites
Extravehicular activity (EVA) of astronauts during space missions is simulated nowadays underwater in neutral buoyancy facilities. Certain aspects of weightlessness can be reproduced underwater by adding buoyancy to a diver-astronaut, therefore exposing the subject to the difficulties of working without gravity. Such tests were done at the COMEX' test pool in Marseilles in the 1980s to train for a French-Russian mission to the MIR station, for the development of the European HERMES shuttle and the COLUMBUS laboratory. However, space agencies are currently studying missions to other destinations than the International Space Station in orbit, such as the return to the Moon, NEO (near-Earth objects) or Mars. All these objects expose different gravities: Moon has one sixth of Earth's gravity, Mars has a third of Earth's gravity and asteroids have virtually no surface gravity; the astronaut "floats" above the ground. The preparation of such missions calls for a new concept in neutral buoyancy training, not on man-made structures, but on natural terrain, underwater, to simulate EVA operations such as sampling, locomotion or even anchoring in low gravity. Underwater sites can be used not only to simulate the reduced gravity that astronauts will experience during their field trips, also human factors like stress are more realistically reproduced in such environment. The Bay of Marseille hosts several underwater sites that can be used to simulate various geologic morphologies, such as sink-holes which can be used to simulate astronaut descends into craters, caves where explorations of lava tubes can be trained or monolithic rock structures that can be used to test anchoring devices (e.g., near Earth objects). Marseilles with its aerospace and maritime/offshore heritage hosts the necessary logistics and expertise that is needed to perform such simulations underwater in a safe manner (training of astronaut-divers in local test pools, research vessels, subsea robots and submarines). COMEX is currently preparing a space mission simulation in the Marseilles Bay (foreseen in June 2012), and the paper will give an overview of the different underwater analogue sites that are available to the scientific community for the simulation of surface EVA or the test of scientific instruments and devices.