Obama’s New Plan for NASA: Why Go to an Asteroid?

Capping off weeks of rumor and speculation, U.S. President Barack Obama formally unveiled his proposed plan for NASA yesterday, an interesting mix of caution and ambition that makes some significant tweaks to his predecessor’s push for a human return to the moon.

Among the main points, Obama is saying we should skip the moon and instead aim to put astronauts on an asteroid by 2025.


The NEAR spacecraft approaches asteroid 433 Eros in an artist’s conception.

—Illustration by Pat Rawling, courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Why an asteroid? Armageddon-esque reasons aside, visiting an asteroid is seen as a bridge for sending humans to Mars.

Consider: The moon gets as close as 225,622 miles (363,104 kilometers) to Earth, which puts it in relatively easy reach of modern technology. Heck, we first made it there in 1969, and a lot has changed tech-wise in the 40+ years since then.

By contrast, Mars at its closest is about 34 million miles (55 million kilometers) away, so getting people there would require some serious updates to our existing crew capsules and propulsion systems—not to mention some very hardy astronauts.

Hence the asteroid plan. A handful of near-Earth asteroids swing by within 4.6 million miles (7.5 million kilometers) of Earth, putting them in feasible reach of existing launch technologies, with a few modifications.

Mission specialists estimate that a round trip jaunt to an asteroid would take about six months.

Now, going to an asteroid actually isn’t anything new. NASA has been evaluating proposals to send people to an asteroid for years, with an object called 1999 AO10 being called out as a possible target as recently as January.

Once there, the mission would be much the same as previous trips to the moon: collect samples and study geologic composition.

From a scientific standpoint, asteroids can tell us volumes about the early solar system, since these planetary leftovers have been drifting about largely unaffected by weathering for the past 4.6 billion years.

Studying the makeup of NEAs in particular might prove crucial, since knowing what these objects are made of can help us figure out how to deflect them if one ever gets on a collision course with Earth.

Based on telescope and satellite observations, we think some asteroids might be solid rocks, while others may be rubble piles.


The rubbly asteroid Itokawa

—Image copyright ISAS, JAXA

If your NEA is rocky, nuking it Bruce Willis-style might create chunks of debris that could prove just as deadly. If the asteroid is made up of a loose conglomeration of smaller rocks held together by gravity, anything we toss at it might just get absorbed and have no effect on its path.

Interestingly, a Space.com article from 2009 about manned asteroid missions suggested that we wouldn’t land anything on the asteroid per se. Rather, the mission would cruise up to the space rock and astronauts would pop over on jet packs, like pirates coming alongside a cargo ship.

“We assume staying at the asteroid for five days. They could stay a week or two. But staying for a month gets hard,” Josh Hopkins, of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, told Space.com.

Like the Apollo missions, though, getting to the asteroid would be less about the science and more about the technology, putting humans on course for colonizing the solar system—and keeping the U.S. on course as a leader in space exploration.

There are some caveats. After all, going to the moon would have been less about “we made it!” like it was during the Apollo missions and more about “let’s stay for a while.” You can set up a base on the moon, mine for materials, and make a go of establishing Earth’s first space colony.

Even if astronauts set foot on an asteroid, it’s an unlikely place for a long-term settlement. So if we skip the moon, will we be ready to live on Mars if/when we get there?

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