Human mission to an asteroid: Why should NASA go?

Aug 24, 2011 By Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today
A human mission to an asteroid. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Imagine, if you can, the first time human eyes see Earth as a distant, pale blue dot. We’ve dreamed of deep space missions for centuries, and during the Apollo era, space enthusiasts assumed we’d surely be out there by now. Nevertheless, given the current state of faltering economies and potential budget cuts for NASA and other space agencies, sending humans beyond low Earth orbit might seem as impossible and unreachable as ever, if not more.

But NASA has been given a presidential directive to land astronauts on an by 2025, a mission that some say represents the most ambitious and audacious plan yet for the space agency.

“The human mission to an asteroid is an extremely important national goal,” Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart told Universe Today. “It will focus both NASA’s and the nation’s attention on we humans extending our capability beyond Earth/Moon space and into deep space. This is an essential capability in order to ultimately get to Mars, and a relatively short mission to a near-Earth asteroid is a logical first step in establishing a deep space human capability.”

And, Schweickart added, the excitement factor of such a mission would be off the charts. “Humans going into orbit around the Sun is pretty exciting!” said Schweickart, who piloted the lunar module during the Apollo 9 mission in 1969. “The Earth will be, for the first time to human eyes, a small blue dot.”

But not everyone agrees that an asteroid is the best destination for humans. Several of Schweickart’s Apollo compatriots, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan, favor returning to the Moon and are concerned that President Obama’s directive is a “grounding of JFK’s space legacy.”

Compounding the issue is that NASA has not yet decided on a launch system capable of reaching deep space, much less started to build such a rocket.

Can NASA really go to an asteroid?

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has called a human mission to an asteroid “the hardest thing we can do.”

Excited by the challenge, NASA chief technology officer Bobby Braun said, “This is a risky, challenging mission. It’s the kind of mission that engineers will eat up.”

A human mission to an asteroid is a feat of technical prowess that might equal or exceed what it took for the US to reach the Moon in the 1960’s. Remember scientists who thought the moon lander might disappear into a “fluffy” lunar surface? That reflects our current understanding of asteroids: we don’t know how different asteroids are put together (rubble pile or solid surface?) and we certainly aren’t sure how to orbit and land on one.

“One of the things we need to work on is figuring out what you actually do when you get to an asteroid,” said Josh Hopkins from Lockheed Martin, who is the Principal Investigator for Advanced Human Exploration Missions. Hopkins leads a team of engineers who develop plans and concepts for a variety of future human exploration missions, including visits to asteroids. He and his team proposed the so-called “Plymouth Rock” mission to an asteroid (which we’ll discuss more in a subsequent article), and have been working on the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which would be a key component of a human mission to an asteroid.

“How do you fly in formation with an asteroid that has a very weak gravitational field, so that other perturbations such as slight pressure from the Sun would affect your orbit,” Hopkins mused, in an interview with Universe Today. “How do you interact with an asteroid, especially if you don’t know exactly what its surface texture and composition is? How do you design anchors or hand-holds or tools that can dig into the surface?”

Hypothetical astronaut mission to an asteroid. Credit: NASA Human Exploration Framework Team

Hopkins said he and his team have been working on developing some technologies that are fairly “agnostic” about the asteroid – things that will work on a wide variety of asteroids, rather than being specific to an iron type- or carbonaceous-type asteroid.

A weak gravity field means astronauts probably couldn’t walk on some asteroids – they might just float away, so ideas include installing handholds or using tethers, bungees, nets or jetpacks. In order for a spaceship to stay in orbit, astronauts might have to “harpoon” the asteroid and tether it to the ship.

Hopkins said many of those types of technologies are being developed for and will be demonstrated on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, the robotic sample return mission that NASA recently just selected for launch in 2016. “That mission is very complimentary to a future human mission to an asteroid,” Hopkins said.

Benefits

What benefits would a human asteroid mission provide?

“It would add to our body of knowledge about these interesting, and occasionally dangerous bodies,” said Schweickart, “and benefit our interest in protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts. So the human mission to a NEO is a very high priority in my personal list.”

Space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones says he thinks a mission to near Earth objects is a vital part of a planned human expansion into deep space. It would be an experiential stepping stone to Mars, and much more.

“Planning 6-month round trips to these ancient bodies will teach us a great deal about the early history of the solar system, how we can extract the water known to be present on certain asteroids, techniques for deflecting a future impact from an asteroid, and applying this deep space experience toward human Mars exploration,” Jones told Universe Today.

“Because an asteroid mission will not require a large, expensive lander, the cost might be comparable to a shorter, lunar mission, and NEO expeditions will certainly show we have set our sights beyond the Moon,” he said.

But Jones – and others – are concerned the Obama administration is not serious about such a mission and that the president’s rare mentions of a 2025 mission to a nearby asteroid has not led to firm NASA program plans, realistic milestones or funding.

“I think 2025 is so far and so nebulous that this administration isn’t taking any responsibility for making it happen,” Jones said. “They are just going to let that slide off the table until somebody else takes over.”

Jones said he wouldn’t be surprised if nothing concrete happens with a NASA mission until there is an administration change.

“The right course is to be more aggressive and say we want people out of Earth orbit in an Orion vehicle in 2020, so send them around the Moon to test out the ship, get them to the LaGrange points by 2020 and then you can start doing asteroid missions over the next few years,” Jones said. “Waiting for 2025 is just a political infinity in terms of making things happen.”

Jones said politics aside, it is certainly feasible to do all this by 2020. “That is nine years from now. My gosh, we are talking about getting a vehicle getting out of orbit. If we can’t do that in nine years, we probably don’t have any hope of doing that in longer terms.”

Can NASA do such a mission? Will it happen? If so, how? Which asteroid should humans visit?

Over the next few days, we’ll take a closer look at the concepts and hurdles for a human mission to an asteroid and attempt to answer some of these questions.

Explore further: Bright points in Sun's atmosphere mark patterns deep in its interior

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User comments : 27

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antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 24, 2011
Politics aside going to an asteroid instead of Mars as the next step makes a lot of (technological) sense - even if itdeosn't grip the imagination quite as hard as setting a foot on another planet.

You test out the endurance of manned spaceships without having to also worry about landing and take-off from a significant gravitational well on the very first try.

Might take along a few tools to see how viable it is to hollow out an asteroid (or probably just dig a few centimeters down for the first time out) in preparation for creating protected fuel/consumables stockpiles for future missions or even digging down enough to create habitats.

Maybe even check if the asteroid contains anything that is worth something - you never know.

So yes: I can see a lot of benefit in trying this first.
LKD
4 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2011
Which asteroid? Are we talking about something in the Lagrange points? Something doing a flyby of Earth's orbit path?
GDM
5 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2011
LKD, a fair question. NASA is currently tracking 1,244 potentially hazardous asteroids, including 99942 Apophis (aka 2004 MN4), which are a subset of the 8,085 Near-Earth Asteroids. For (Solar) Lagrangian objects, there are 3,032 Amors, 4,382 Apollos, and 660 Atens, as well as 11 Interior Earth Objects. There is a great database, along with orbital diagrams at the NASA/JPL site http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/neo/
parder_dade
5 / 5 (2) Aug 24, 2011
Going somewhere is better that what we have now. No operational craft to carry humans anywhere. The lack of national leadership and focus is amazing. Let's hire some new Germans. They got us to the moon, Mars should be a good challenge for them. Read Von Brauns book The Mars Project which he wrote in his spare time. That's a real destination
ricarguy
2.3 / 5 (6) Aug 24, 2011
OK, going somewhere is better than no where. But challenging or not, nothing very inspiring about landing on a rocky, ferrous, potato-looking thing tumbling through "near-Earth" space. The world at large will not understand the challenges. They will wonder, "With our kids already saddled with a second mortgage, why spend money on THAT?" Drill a couple of holes in it to take home and stick a magnetic flag on (from Earth's viewpoint) a microscopic rock?

Why not revisit the "tired, old ideas from the past" that made some sense in terms of actual progress? A small settlement on the moon with a station in permanent orbit around it. That will test out the endurance of anything needed.
ACW
5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2011
I think 2025 is so far and so nebulous that this administration isnt taking any responsibility for making it happen, Jones said. They are just going to let that slide off the table until somebody else takes over.

That seems to be the fate of all the visions about NASAs manned programs since Apollo was scrapped
rwinners
2.5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2011
Why should nasa go? Because the people with the purse strings say so. Those same people can easily change their minds. The important thing is to keep moving forward. Hopefully, NASA will spend their lucre on a broad variety of projects to maintain momentum.
antialias_physorg
3.3 / 5 (3) Aug 25, 2011
A small settlement on the moon with a station in permanent orbit around it. That will test out the endurance of anything needed.

With politicians just thinking from one election period to the next that's an extremely dicey foundation to base a permanent settlement (and one permanently relying on supplies from earth) on.
Pyle
5 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2011
I hate to say it, but it sounds like we need a profit motive to move forward here in a meaningful and permanent way.
Magnette
4.5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2011
"Space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones says he thinks a mission to near Earth objects is a vital part of a planned human expansion into deep space."

What happened, did he get fed up with singing and thought he'd be an astronaut instead? :-)
TheDoctor
5 / 5 (2) Aug 25, 2011
I'm afraid Plye is right. Without some sort of monotary gain involved, it will be very hard to get any of these missions off the ground. Oh, no pun intended.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 25, 2011
Without some sort of monotary gain involved, it will be very hard to get any of these missions off the ground.

The Chinese could just order it to get off the ground. One of the (very few) advantages of a centralized/autocratic government.

If the West doesn't do it then they will. Best would be if it were a joint effort, though.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (5) Aug 25, 2011
Isn't this a moot point? We can't even send a human being into LEO anymore thanks to the Obama administration. The post office loses more money every year than we spend on NASA.

The article should be why should we hire/hitch a ride with the Russians or the Chinese to an asteroid.
Gawad
5 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2011
Isn't this a moot point? We can't even send a human being into LEO anymore thanks to the Obama administration. The post office loses more money every year than we spend on NASA.

The article should be why should we hire/hitch a ride with the Russians or the Chinese to an asteroid.
I think you're really unfairly demonizing the Obama administration here MM. The shuttle program was scheduled for dismantling long before the presidency was a twinkle in Obama's eye, and the budget afforded NASA for the Constellation program by the Bush administration was completely inadequate to meet the requirements and expectations. Given the economic circumstances that prevailed at the start of Obama's term, cancelling the program was (unfortunately) the only responsible thing to do. The budget increase NASA would have needed from the Obama administration to complete the program would have been untenable, even assuming a complete management overhaul.
Gawad
5 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2011
I hate to say it, but it sounds like we need a profit motive to move forward here in a meaningful and permanent way.

I unfortunately have to agree with you Pyle. Although the space race of the 60s and 70s was not driven by the profit motive, but by national pride and an intense rivalry--the embodiment of an intense ideological competition--with the USSR, those motivations are long gone. China isn't a rival so much as a supplier, so I think if the Chinese wish to embark on a such a program for the sake of national pride and to help cement their place as a world power, the West will pretty much just let it go and wish them well.
Modernmystic
2.4 / 5 (7) Aug 25, 2011
Hard on the Obama administration? No I don't think so considering the staggering amount of crap they've spent money on we could EASILY have afforded the Orion program without even breaking a sweat.

I'm no fan of NASA, but this country needs the ability to put human beings in orbit. Space is the high ground, lose it and none of us is going to like the result.
GDM
3 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2011
mm: the staggering amount of money spent saved the US banking system, and the world's, from a total collapse, as well as saving american auto producers from total bankruptcy. To do anything else would have been completely irresponsible (as were two unfunded wars, an unfunded tax break for those who never asked for it nor needed it, and a giveaway to big pharma) Obama thus prevented a complete world-wide house-of-cards collapse. The last time something like that happened, we ended up in a world war at a cost of over 30 million lives. The Orion program was far over budget from the start and cost 3-4 times what SpaceX can, and will, do. NASA knew the end was coming a decade ago, and all they could come up with was "Apollo on Steroids"? I DO agree this country needs to regain the high ground and keep it, but where are the voters? Do you think the tea party fundamentalists give a rat's *** about space? Anyone else? Speak up and perhaps we will get there again.
LKD
3 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2011
"an unfunded tax break for those who never asked for it nor needed it,"

I see you forget that the poor like myself gained the biggest decrease in tax rates, and with inflation at 10% at least per year, you are clearly oblivious to real life because I needed it to eat.

Anything NASA does is over budget and could be done cheaper by private companies. That's why government shouldn't do things and should stick to enforcement and regulation.

No one wants space but the military and scientists because there is no defined benefit to the common person. If a solar plant in space was under development, the public would support it. If a moon base for mining was introduced, the public would support it.

If you discard the bold colors of inspiration for gray minutia, the public will not care a wit about space.

The current malaise in NASA's lack of direction is their own fault.
Pyle
3 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
So @LKD, do you think Walmart or American Idol is doing anything to push the human race forward technologically? How about NASCAR, MLB, the NFL, or "name your reality TV show"? Who better to do something for the advancement of the species than a body made by elected representatives of the most prosperous nation on the planet?

No one wants space but the military and scientists because there is no defined benefit to the common person.

Just because the benefits of something aren't immediate or laid out for you before you embark on the adventure doesn't mean there won't be benefits "to the common person." Almost everything in our society has been impacted positively by government research in the space program and military.

I see you forget that the poor like myself gained the biggest decrease in tax rates
Yeah, you paid a grand less while billionaires saved MILLIONS. Don't you get it yet? They lure you with pennies while they pass legislation that robs you blind.
Pyle
3.3 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2011
The current malaise in NASA's lack of direction is their own fault.

Partially. Sure, GDM said it well, as have several articles and commenters on this site.
However, the public's short attention span and ignorance plays a major role as well. The public is more excited by the Cardashian princess than by anything that happens outside of our atmosphere. It is sad.
GDM
5 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2011
LDK: The tax break for the "poor" is well received, by me as as well, and likely to be terminated soon by the republicans. It is hard to get really specific in less than 1,000 characters so we deal with gross generalities. Pyle is also correct: as long as we watch crap on TV and play video games, we will never get anywhere. I spend a lot of time on NASA and other science websites gathering information that keep me up to date on the latest discoveries. NASA could use the help as well: Due to lack of personnel, they have lost enormous amounts of data gathered on the moon, but left unprocessed and now "lost" in storage (think Indiana Jones warehouse). Also, the tapes of data could only be read by equipment now obsolete. A couple of those tape drives were saved by a senior scientist in his garage for the last decade or so and work is underway to repair them. Can you imagine what may be lost next? Very sad, indeed.
LKD
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
GDM, I recall the big hubub when the original tapes were found in Australia. I was ashamed that we call NASA our space agency that day.

There are tremendous things we can do right now to encourage people to care about space for more than their satellite reception. The problem is from my prospective, we have a department full of bureaucrats in charge of the most exceptional scientists on this beautiful planet.

We can all argue about the politics and have conflicting valid and contentious debates till the end of time (and it could be fun), but I firmly believe that NASA needs to be rebuilt from scratch, hire back the shuttle scientists they disgracefully fired, and come up with their own purpose and goals to bring space to people.
LKD
3 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2011
Pyle, I would love to remark and debate your points, but I fear that'll get us too far off topic. I do like your tone and wish we could all just have the discussion without the deaf shilling.
Pyle
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 26, 2011
but I firmly believe that NASA needs to be rebuilt from scratch, hire back the shuttle scientists they disgracefully fired, and come up with their own purpose and goals to bring space to people.

I wish I would have gotten that from your first post. I am afraid I assumed you had quite the opposite attitude.

I would say that some of the scientists they fired, such as our resident Revulsionist, might not warrant a second look. We definitely need to bring back some of the lost experience, but we also need new younger blood infused into the program as well.
LKD
3 / 5 (2) Aug 26, 2011
Oh, it's quite fine. :)

Young blood is already there. I just wish they had a real purpose more than the exploration missions. People gravitate towards results and physical accomplishment more-so than images and the underfunded research efforts.

I really believe we need to do something productive and industrious out there. The public will only ignore the neglected front more and more till China is the only one doing anything in space.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2011
Profit motive is ultimately the best motivator for any human activity...sad but true perhaps.

Space however is outside the prevue of private concerns at our present place in history. It has immense military implications which makes it a government concern as well...just like any frontier. First the government, then private business...it's just the way it works.

We've dropped the ball and it absolutely, positively IS the fault of this dipshit administration. There isn't an excuse in the world that absolves them from their negligence in this matter.
Egleton
2.8 / 5 (5) Aug 27, 2011
Old blood here.
I have heard the naysayers before way back in the time of Sputnik. "Why do the want to spend good money putting satellites up?" Imagine if we had taken their advice and bought a few new weapons.

Whoever colonises L4 and L5 has the high ground. Everyone else gets to leave the gravity well by invitation only. The asteroids are excellent material to use at the Lagrange points to build Dr Gerard O'Neil's cylinders.
http://en.wikiped...cylinder

We will have several orders of magnitude more people in space than at the bottom of the well.
All manufacturing will be done in space where it belongs. The surface of my planet is too precious to wreck with industrial pollution.

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