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Mock asteroid mission set for launch


The view out the front of NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle simulator features an image of the asteroid Itokawa, which was visited by Japan's Hayabusa probe in 2005. Itokawa serves as the model for the Desert RATS' simulated mission to a near-Earth asteroid.

NASA's Desert RATS team is ready to begin a visit to a near-Earth asteroid next week — a simulated mission, that is.

Since 1997, the Desert RATS crew have conducted summer simulations aimed at trying out the robots and other tools that may come into play during future exploration missions beyond Earth orbit. The "Desert" part of the name refers to the usual locale for the exercises, in the Arizona desert, and "RATS" stands for "Research and Technology Studies."

This year is different: Instead of simulating surface operations on the moon or Mars, the team will focus on a zero-G visit to an asteroid, like the one NASA is planning for the mid-2020s. That means it's not so important to go out into the desert. As a result, this month's simulation is being run out of Building 9 at Johnson Space Center in Texas, the Desert RATS home base.

A mockup of NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, or MMSEV, has been outfitted with a display that will show a virtual-reality view of the asteroid Itokawa out the front windows.

"It curves around the windows of the vehicle as a projection," NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean explained.

Four crew members will take turns living in the MMSEV and exploring their simulated asteroid, using Johnson Space Center's virtual-reality facilities — as well as a setup known as ARGOS (Active Response Gravity Offload System) that can suspend astronauts in the air to make them feel as if they're floating in microgravity.

James Blair / NASA

NASA astronaut Alvin Drew tries out the ARGOS system, which is designed to simulate microgravity.

Communications between the MMSEV and a mock mission control will be tweaked to simulate the light-speed travel time between Earth and an asteroid. There'll be a 50-second delay in voice transmission, going each way. And the MMSEV can move around to simulate the moves that an asteroid-bound crew might feel during a real mission. "We have it on a sled that we can put on an air-bearing floor," Dean said.

The Desert RATS exercise is due to get under way on Monday and run through Aug. 30, with Aug. 31 set aside as a contingency day. After all, even a mission to a make-believe asteroid may require a one-day extension.

To keep up with the RATS pack, check out the team's website, Facebook page and Twitter stream.

Where in the Cosmos
The picture of the MMSEV with a simulated asteroid looming in front of the windshield served as today's puzzle picture for our weekly "Where in the Cosmos" contest on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It didn't take long for Dug Patnaude and Andrew Russell to figure out that the picture showed a simulated MMSEV — and to reward their quick wits and typing fingers, I'm willing to send them 3-D glasses, courtesy of Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope project. Those red-blue spectacles will come in handy for watching this 3-D video of asteroid Itokawa. Want to get in on the fun? Click the "like" button for the Cosmic Log Facebook page and limber up your fingers for next Friday's contest.

More about mission simulations:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.