Landing on an asteroid: Not quite like in the movies

June 28, 2010 By Traci Watson

Millions of miles from Earth, two astronauts hover weightlessly next to a giant space rock, selecting pebbles for scientific research. The spaceship where they'll sleep floats just overhead. Beyond it, barely visible in the sky, is a glittering speck. It's Earth.

It sounds like a science-fiction movie, but this surreal scene could, if President has his way, become a reality. However, unlike Hollywood depictions in such movies as "Armageddon," it's going to be a lot harder to pull off.

Almost 50 years after President John F. Kennedy proposed sending a man to the "before this decade is out," Obama has set an equally improbable goal. He has proposed a 2025 date for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to land humans on an asteroid, a ball of rock hurtling around the sun.

The moon is 240,000 miles away. A trip to an asteroid would be 5 million miles -- at a minimum.

Why go?

If the mission ever gets launched, it would mark a milestone just as significant as Neil Armstrong's "small step" on the moon, experts say. To go to an asteroid, humans would have to venture for the first time into "deep space," where the sun, not the Earth, is the main player.

An asteroid trip "would really be our first step as a species outside the Earth-moon system," said planetary scientist Andy Rivkin of the Applied Physics Laboratory. "This would be taking off the training wheels."

Asteroids have always been passed over as a destination for human explorers. Then-President George H.W. Bush wanted NASA to go to Mars, while his son, George W. Bush, chose the moon. During the last six years, NASA has spent $9 billion building a spaceship, rocket and other gear to help reach the second Bush's goal of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020.

In February, Obama took steps toward killing Bush's moon program, which was beset by technical troubles and money woes. Two months later, in a speech at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Obama announced that the astronauts' next stop is an asteroid.

So far, the Obama administration has been quiet on the need for a major sum of money to accomplish his goal. And unlike Kennedy, who used Russian spacecraft missions known as Sputnik to promote the moon mission, Obama doesn't have a geopolitical imperative to justify the scheme. Congress is resisting Obama's change of direction, which could delay investment in the program.

If Obama wants to bolster his cause, there's a rationale he could cite: An asteroid could wipe out as many human lives as a nuclear bomb. The dominant scientific theory posits that dinosaurs went extinct because of a direct hit from an asteroid as wide as San Francisco. A space rock big enough to kill thousands slams into Earth every 30,000 years, according to a January report from the National Research Council.

That scenario provided the rationale for asteroid missions in various Hollywood movies, including "Armageddon." The 1998 film, which starred Bruce Willis, grossed more than $200 million at the box office in the United States, and more than $500 million worldwide. It went on to be a staple on cable television.

But if Americans think they have an understanding of the challenge of going to an asteroid, they're wrong. "I loved the movie," said Laurie Leshin, a top NASA official who is involved in the early planning stages of an asteroid mission, although "it was completely inaccurate."

Obama's plans for NASA have drawn many opponents, including Armstrong, but their criticism centers on the administration's reliance on private space companies to ferry astronauts to orbit. The goal of an asteroid hasn't been questioned as much.

That doesn't mean it would be easy. Although experts agree it could be done, here are four asteroid-sized reasons why life won't imitate art.

ASTRONAUTS CAN'T HOP ON A SPACE SHUTTLE TO GET THERE. In "Armageddon," Willis' character and his crew blast off in two modified space shuttles to reach the killer asteroid. But NASA has long planned to retire the shuttles within the next year. And even if they weren't all headed to museums, they're useless as asteroid transporters.

The shuttles were built only to circle Earth, said Dan Adamo, a former mission control engineer who has studied human missions to asteroids. They don't carry the fuel to jump into deep space, and their heat shields aren't designed to withstand the extra-high temperatures of returning from a destination other than the Earth's orbit.

What's needed instead is a giant rocket on the scale of the monstrous Saturn V -- taller than Big Ben -- that propelled man to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Such a project is "a difficult challenge" that will cost in the multiple billions of dollars, said Ray Colladay, a member of NASA's advisory council.

NASA spent more than $52 billion in 2010 dollars to develop and build the Saturn V. Building a 21st-century version can be done but will require a sharp increase in the NASA budget later this decade, some space experts say.

"That's the issue everybody wants to duck right now, because it's uncomfortable to face that," Colladay said.

NASA would also need to build a new spaceship where the astronauts can live and store all the oxygen, food and water needed for a long voyage. One option is to launch a small space pod carrying the crew, then, once safely in space, unleash an inflatable habitat, Leshin said.

NASA has little practice with such a blow-up spacecraft.

THE TRIP TAKES A LONG, LONG TIME. Willis and company arrive at their target asteroid in a few days, if not a few hours. Admittedly, it's streaking toward Earth at the time. NASA would prefer to go to one before it gets to that stage.

Studies by Adamo, former astronaut Thomas Jones and others show that a round trip to a target asteroid would typically take five to six months. That assumes NASA shoots for one of the 40 or so asteroids that come closest to the Earth's path in the 2020s and 2030s and relies on spacecraft similar to those NASA had designed for Bush's moon mission.

Another problem during the journey -- the crew would spend months "cooking" in space radiation, said NASA's Dave Korsmeyer, who has compiled a list of the most accessible asteroids. Shuttle passengers are somewhat screened from such radiation by Earth's magnetic field. Astronauts who leave Earth's orbit have no such protection.

Space radiation raises the risk of cancer and in extreme cases causes nausea and vomiting, said Walter Schimmerling, former program scientist of NASA's space radiation program. The astronauts might need to take drugs to prevent the ill effects of radiation.

Then there's the "prolonged isolation and confinement" that the crew will have to endure, said Jason Kring of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "This crew will be more on their own than any other crew in history."

If there's an emergency halfway into the trip, the astronauts would not be able to get home in a few days, as the Apollo 13 crew did. Instead it would take weeks, if not months.

HUMANS CAN'T WALK OR DRIVE ON AN ASTEROID. Once they land on the asteroid "the size of Texas," the heroes of "Armageddon" run over the spiky terrain, except when they're steering two tank-like vehicles. In reality, even the biggest asteroids have practically no gravity. So anything in contact with the surface could easily drift away.

"You don't land on an asteroid," said former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, a longtime advocate of asteroid studies. "You pull up to one and dock with it. And getting away from it, all you have to do is sneeze and you're gone." He envisions a spaceship hovering next to the asteroid and occasionally firing its thrusters to stay in place.

Astronauts wouldn't walk on an asteroid. They would drift next to it, moving themselves along with their gloved hands.

To keep from floating into space, crewmembers could anchor a network of safety ropes to the asteroid's surface, but "that has its own risks, because we don't understand how strong the surfaces of asteroids are and whether (they) would hold an astronaut in place," said Daniel Scheeres, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado.

The minimal gravity also means that any dust the astronauts stir up will hang in a suspended cloud for a long time. Because there's no weather on an asteroid, there's no erosion to smooth the dust particles.

"It's all going to stay pretty razor-sharp. It's not the most friendly stuff in the universe," Korsmeyer said. Keeping humans safe as they explore an asteroid "is going to be really tricky."

HUMANITY DOESN'T HANG IN THE BALANCE. In "Armageddon," NASA must send a crew to an asteroid or life on will be wiped out. "Even the bacteria," said the NASA chief, played by Billy Bob Thornton.

In the real world, that irrefutable motivation is absent. By 2025, Obama's target date, there will have been four presidential elections. Any could result in the mission's cancellation, just as Obama canceled Bush's moon plan. "The politics of this is far more challenging than the engineering," Colladay said.

The Obama administration has promised to increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years, but priorities may change. The Bush administration, for example, in 2007 cut long-term funding for its own by $1.2 billion.

As the deficit looms larger, "especially as the November elections come along I would just not be surprised if enthusiasm for some big human spaceflight mission ends," said Marcia Smith, founder of

As it is, the extra $6 billion Obama has promised NASA is inadequate for all the tasks the agency is supposed to tackle, Jones said. "The declaration that we're going to deep space is not matched by budget reality," he said.

Leshin, the NASA official, responds that the agency is embarking on a research program that will lead to new, less costly technologies. The agency will build new spacecraft over a period of many years, so the costs don't pile up all at once, she said.

"If we're making progress toward goals that are exciting and important to the American people, then it should be a sustainable program," Leshin said.

She is optimistic that relatively soon, NASA astronauts will speed toward a rendezvous with an , and that it will be better than in the movies.

"The first time we send humans beyond the cradle of the Earth-moon system, it's going to be extraordinary," Leshin said. "We will have gone further with humans in than ever before. It will be an incredible first."

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4 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2010
They should land on Ceres. There might be enough gravity there. Also there would be water.
1.7 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2010
The landing on asteroid is advantageous from political reasons, because of nearly no energy is required for return. It's in fact a much easier, then the landing on Moon, despite of its proximity. Russian are already planing the trip to Phobos, moon of Mars.

No, still a lot of energy is required. You have to stop the spacecraft weighing many tons traveling at say 40 000 km/h to 0 (approximately). And then speed it up again for return to Earth.
1 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2010
Thank the Maker, pResident Obama will be retired in 2012, whether he likes it or not.
4.3 / 5 (4) Jun 28, 2010
The astronauts might need to take drugs to prevent the ill effects of radiation.

What kind of statement is this? Radiation is physics - medication is chemistry. You can't swallow a pill to become immune to radiation damage.

In "Armageddon," NASA must send a crew to an asteroid or life on Earth will be wiped out. "Even the bacteria,"

We've found bacteria more than a mile donw in the earth's crust. Not even a global killer asteroid would wipe them out completely - not even if it split the planet.
3.8 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2010
Why dont we create a GLOBAL space agency? What is the point of all these little countries trying to do these things individually? Its stupid. Its one planet, we only need ONE space agency, with one pool of money, donated to by all the coutries. "Russia is going to Mars" NO - Mankind is going to Mars, no matter what country does the work. Lets band together, have we learned nothing from all those private organizations trying to startup Space Tourism? It proves that we need more than one government or agency, but many minds working together.
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 28, 2010
The astronauts might need to take drugs to prevent the ill effects of radiation.

What kind of statement is this? Radiation is physics - medication is chemistry. You can't swallow a pill to become immune to radiation damage.

The radiation causes damage by tearing apart biomolecules, though. Chemistry can't really stop damage from occurring in the first place, but it could play a role in fixing things back up again. And for what it's worth, there are some treatments (mostly experimental, I gather) for radiation poisoning: http://en.wikiped...reatment
4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2010
Why dont we create a GLOBAL space agency? What is the point of all these little countries trying to do these things individually?

Some countries (notably those with space faring capability) will want to have the ability to launch spy/military sattelites - which would be hard if there was only one global agency with global accountability.
And for what it's worth, there are some treatments (mostly experimental, I gather)

Yes, though the ill effects are also due to DNA damage (something no medication can repair) and outright cell death/necrosis which leads to toxic substances flooding the system (one of the reasons why radiation sickness causes people to throw up)

Mitigating the symptoms will not alleviate the causes - the astronaut will still die.
3 / 5 (4) Jun 28, 2010
Yeah, sure, they can launch thier own satellites, but Im talking about the BIG stuff - Going to the moon, asteroids and other planets. That should be a world organization.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 28, 2010
We don't necessarily need a Saturn-sized Rocket - we can, and should, assemble a vessel (or several) in space from smaller parts boosted by the currently available rockets (Proton, Long March, Delta, Atlas, Ariane). We can start right away and when NASA reaches the first asteroid in 2025, they can kick off their moon boots and relax at the Bigelow Bar, with a lovely view of the solar system.
4.2 / 5 (5) Jun 28, 2010
Yeah, sure, they can launch thier own satellites, but Im talking about the BIG stuff - Going to the moon, asteroids and other planets. That should be a world organization.

I'm for it, Star-fleet is the way to go. And as far as spy satellites go, I'm sure the airforce could do the tactical stuff. And to help dry the Obama tears, just imagine how bad off we'd be with McCain/Palin. Even if you don't like Obama, he's the lesser of two evils. You betcha!
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2010
We don't necessarily need a Saturn-sized Rocket - we can, and should, assemble a vessel (or several) in space from smaller parts boosted by the currently available rockets...

This! I don't understand why everyone thinks we need to send everything in one payload to orbit and out. We need to do this for missions to the moon as well. The engineers have to know enough about modular construction to pull it off by now. And if they don't, they need to learn.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2010
Why not use parts from the international space station when it retires? Or at least assemble a space craft like the ISS, as you say.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2010
Assembly in orbit is tough - especially construction in orbit from 'first principles' (e.g. metal bearing asteroids brough to the construction site).

Consider that two metal pieces that were manufactured under vacuum conditions in orbit and brought into contact will simply fuse into a single piece. No oxidizing layer exists on their surface which keeps them apart...

..and that is just ONE tiny problem of many we would be faced with when doing fully orbital constructions.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2010

The U.S. already pays for a significant portion of the other nations' space programs anyway, so there really isn't much benefit.

Personally, I don't want to see another manned mission to the moon or anywhere else, until we develop the robotics technology and the other technologies for permanent, one-way colonization. Otherwise, manned missions are a complete waste of time and resources.

This notion of ferrying astronauts back and forth from earth to moon or asteroid or mars and back at the cost of 20k to 30k or more per pound is ridiculous. You can put a HELL of a lot of people to work here on earth working on bridges, roads, and monorails for what a single manned mission to the moon or mars will cost, AND in the meantime, people can continue to work on better robotics technologies and other systems that will eventually be needed for the real mission: Permanent colonization of the Moon and Mars and other solar system objects.
2 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2010
antialias, in orbit assembly has gotten to the point of automatic docking of supply ships. "Look Ma, no hands!" NASA exists to maximize the number of jobs involved in any space project, that's the primary motivation behind the big booster idea. Musk has produced two new rockets for less than 3% of the money NASA wasted on Constellation.

Asteroid mining is generations in the future, not a consideration for the first flight to an asteroid.
3 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2010
Perhaps an advanced unmanned mission could warp cables around the asteroid to prepare a tie down point. A cord hanging off the asteroid long enough could be used as a bungey strap to slow down the arrival of the manned vehicle. But perhaps the decelleration will be too much. And the tether too heavy to transport there. A 1000km long tether could slow down with about 10G from 10000 m/s
3 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2010

Based on Moore's law, asteroid mining via nanotechnology is probably no more than 30 to 40 years away.

With our current advancements in computers an nanotechnology, we are fast approaching "Borg-like" technology with self-assembling nano-machines controlled by a central computer.

Much like Machio Kaku has said, the way to do all this is through nanotechnology. You send a single self replicating robotic system to do all the work and prepare human habitats on mars and the moon, and harvest the comets and asteroids, etc.

There isn't going to be some idiotic ferrying of people back and forth between planets or moons. You send people one way permanently to colonize a planet, much like the first settlers leaving Europe for America.

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