NASA Considers Manned Asteroid Mission

What would happen if we spot a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEO) heading straight for us? Assuming we had enough time, we might be able to pull together a group of brave astronauts (or oil drillers) and send them to the asteroid just in the nick of time to destroy it… oh hold on, that sounds like the storyline for a Hollywood blockbuster. Actually, NASA is planning a mission to an NEO, but not because it’s aimed at us. An asteroid named 2000SG344 (which threatened the Earth in the year 2000) is being considered as the destination for the first manned asteroid mission. The asteroid astronauts will travel there, chasing the 28,000 mi/hr (45,000 km/hr) speeding body and then carry out experiments, living on it for up to two weeks. Why? To briefly establish a manned outpost, advancing science and technology toward the ultimate goal: Mars.

The 1.1 million tonne asteroid was once thought to be a serious threat Earth. Back in 2000, there was a significant chance that asteroid 2000SG344 may have been on a collision course for Earth (with an explosive power of approximately 1 megatonne). Obviously it wasn’t, but it is expected to make an astronomically close flyby in 2030. Before then, NASA hopes to use this 40 meter-wide asteroid as the destination of a three to six month manned mission.

The asteroid mission would act as a “stepping stone” for future planetary missions to Mars and beyond. This three-month trek would provide vital technological, psychological and practical clues to what a manned deep space mission would face. Landing on an asteroid will be very difficult (due to the tiny influence of gravity on such a low-mass body), but it would provide an opportunity for astronauts to mine for water ice, use it for consumption and convert it into its component hydrogen and oxygen (for fuel and breathing). These tests would be essential before sending man on a long-term mission to Mars.

Under the current US administration, NASA has been instructed to send man back to the Moon by 2020. It is hoped that a more permanent base will be established soon after. Once the Moon base has been established, missions to Mars will become much easier to carry out. However, manned trips to near-Earth asteroids allow us to learn more about this potentially catastrophic hazard as well as developing deep space technology for the human presence on Mars.

In a study to be published in June, scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston and Ames Research Centre in California will provide a rundown of their plans to use the future Orion spacecraft for this task, with a stop over of one- or two-weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing their recommendations for this ambitious development…

Source: The Guardian (UK)

22 Replies to “NASA Considers Manned Asteroid Mission”

  1. Ian,

    I must admit that a lot of your stories ‘perk’ me… I like that… I would think that the goal of this site is to promote interest and feedback and you guys (along with your contribution) are doing a good job…
    Oops.. Did I already give my pat on the back?.. It is true, though.
    Long story short (I know, too late): I have no scientific data to support it but I think we will have humans on Mars before landing on an asteroid.. Seems to risky to the average [insert noun here]….. Just my sneaky suspicion.

  2. Great article Ian! (and thanks for the heads up about this too!).

    @ Al Hall: I doubt we will see Mars before 2050, the main reason being the pace of governmental programs (NASA plans on landing on the Moon by 2020, China is looking at 2030, etc.).

    Mars is going to be expensive and a lot more complicated due to the fact that we have yet to figure out how to land anything over one ton on the planet without dying.

    It also lacks major resources that would make it attractive (aside from the weather and ice).

    Asteroids may be smaller, but the metal/minerals would give governments a double take regarding these space rocks.

  3. US govt should be more serious on this matter. i dont understand, they managed to sail for moon in a very short time. whats the problem now?

  4. Darnell,

    Valid points, but economics won’t be the drive. Politics will be…. Nationalism… It is my opinion that we are finally going back to the moon because the Chinese announced they will go there. ‘We’ feel that we must have a foothold, just in case.. Same will go for Mars.. The Russians are also thinking of Mars… For now, it is nationalism.. Later will come commercialism… Just my opinion..
    It really is too bad that our leaders don’t seem to feel as we do (they probably do, but there is more at stake.. so no chances..).. The progress of our species.. I guess it is going to be in our blood for a long time… Try to outdo the other guy…. no matter the cost…
    We will go to Mars soon…. Why?….. Because somebody else said they will do it..

  5. To colonize space we must be serious about the retrieval, mining, manufacturing, infrastructure construction and Space Station, Cycler Orbiter Construction that Near Earth Objects allows us to do. Constructing Space Stations, Cycler Orbiters, Space Industrial Infrastructure, Space Fueling Stations, Space Transport Vehicles all depend on easily accessible resource feedstocks. Living and working in space as a day to day reality will require a new view toward the heavens. One where we use the resource feedstocks that are the most accessible first in the lowest gravitational fields we can. Near Earth Objects that can be landed on with a minimal of propulsive effort and processed for metals, silicon, water, organics and the other resource feedstocks we need must be developed to their fullest to make living in space a reality and not just science fiction.
    Property rights for these resource feedstocks need to be used to give a financial impetus for the acquisition, development and utilization of these easily accessible and infinitely valuable materials. [email protected]

  6. Its not just the cost of the man mooned mission, another overlooked issue is technology.

    Perhaps Ian can clarify this for me, but I recall hearing something about the technology used back in the man mooned missions of the 60’s is actually better than what we have today?

  7. Thanks Ian.

    Al Hall, I’m afraid you are right about it being politics that will take us to other worlds instead of higher callings. I also suspect it was the Chinese stating their goals that prompted Bush to give NASA it’s new plan to go to the Moon and on to Mars. Frustrating! But I guess we should be thankful that at least something motivated them!

    In General: I am intrigued by a human mission to a NEO though. These bodies will have many of the resources required for us to actually live in space for extended periods of time. (maybe not all on the same body) They are also much easier to reach in terms of delta-V than more massive bodies. (Check out Gerard O’Neill’s thoughts on a space faring civilization actually moving to a planetary surface as opposed to living in ‘free space’ in his book ‘The High Frontier’ (somewhat dated now, but I think with still valid points).) I hope NASA actually follows through on this one!


  8. Landing on an object of 40m diameter seems insane to me. There is a s good as no gravity there. Without anchors, you’d fly off that thing never to come down again by just trying to walk on it. Any maneuver has to be done very delicately, otherwise you could permanently change rotation, alignment and possibly the trajectory of that thing, too.

  9. I say if the motivations are political, then so be it!

    Had there been no political reasons to beat the USSR to the moon, we probably would have never gone at all.

    There is nothing like competition to get things moving.

  10. I agree with Dark, if it’s competition moving us then so be it!
    I believe the real signifigance of this venture is to start moving. See what we can do away from “home” and see how far we can go at this point. I believe the more important matter of these missions and plans is the survival of our race, which concerns me too. Why do we feel that it is our right to spread our culture of war and pollution across the galaxy? Then again as a member of this species I say “go for it”. Earth will not always be able to support life, it’s a simple fact. Eventually, there will be the need to leave. Let’s start thinking and planning for that now.

  11. Ntoskrnl, don’t think of it as ‘landing on,’ think of it as a kind of ‘rendezvous and docking with’ the object.

    Gravity’s insignifigant? So what? This is what EVA thruster packs are for. No you don’t ‘walk’ on it in any meaningful sense. Yes, you *do* use pitons (fired forcefully from a distance, if necessary) and other mountaneering technology to secure the explorers and their gear, with the advantange that you can’t ‘fall off,’ just float away. In that case, you jet back and try again.

    Changing the movement of a megaton object is still not trivial. Inertia is the same, even in free fall. And as long as it continues to be on a non Earth-intercept path, who cares?

  12. As a registered cynic, I really don’t have any faith in any governmentally-backed missions to Mars, or anywhere else for that matter. Unmanned missions are one thing. Manned missions mean long term commitments and the assumption that political winds will keep blowing in the same direction. Hasn’t the last 40 years taught us anything? One man’s (or woman’s) ambitous goal is another man’s pork barrel project. Nationalism will not motivate space-travel-competition. We are past that era (a quick survey of the middle east, the crumbling infrastructure of Russia, not to mention the new demands for basics such as fuel, water and food will confirm this). Economics is the long term motivator for the 21st century. Convince enough investors that a profit will be made and we will not only land on Mars but will continue on to Pluto.

  13. @Frank

    Well, you’re right. Many verbs and concepts of doing things are no longer useful in certain space environments. One tends to forget that.

    Walking, landing, mining (probably just scraping or hammering off some dust off that thing), etc… sometimes get completely different meanings.

  14. Ian says: “with an explosive power of approximately 1 megatonne”. BZZT! Wrong!
    According to the kinetic energy formula, a 1.1MT asteroid going at 45000kph would yield 8.6e+16 joules, or 20.5 megatonnes equivalent TNT.

  15. Second try:
    Correction: asteroid 2000 SG344’s mass is 7.1e7kg, relative speed would have been 11.23km/s. Megatonnage was right, but mass was wrong.
    Source: Nasa Jpl NEO risks site. (I think URLs in comments get flushed.)

  16. As far as i know, these problems have not yet been solved for an asteroid or Mars trip:

    A solar coronal mass ejection (CME) that hits the space craft will fry the astronauts. We need serious shielding. Asking astronauts to do a one way trip isn’t good enough. They need to make it there.

    Long term zero gravity it hard on the body. But they have to be in good shape when they get there. AFAIK, there’s no artificial gravity (like spinning spacecraft ala 2001).

    Agriculture has not been demonstrated in space. This is needed to reduce the mass needed.

    In situ resource utilization has not been demonstrated on Mars, the Moon, or even in simulants, on Earth. This is hard.

    Efficient propulsion, to make trips shorter, or to include more stuff… at least ion drives have been demonstrated. It’s not much thrust.

    Some of these things ought to be tried on the ISS. Is it happening? No. It’s hard to imagine going to an asteroid, much less Mars.

  17. Gotta say, politcal will is a motivating factor, BUT, there is still room for international cooperation.
    Despite politics, the cold reality is manned missions are risky & hideously expensive, so even if say, Cuba provides a launch site (I know, I KNOW, unlikely), the US or China or some other country will STILL have to rely on expertise from abroad in some way shape or form

  18. This mission is for engineers, not scientists… therefore NASA will botch it.

    NASA has flaked on developing useful skills in space. The ability to assemble pre-fabbed parts and grow algae in orbit is not what we need. We need engineers learning how to work with metals, like how to smelt ore into metal in free-fall/orbit. How to manufacture parts, extrude/duct/mill parts.

    No one is excited over space anymore because they linked space to science and science has become a money pit where most of it fails to generates any return (how does astronomy pay the bills?) There isn’t any real progress in pure science. You need to attach it to something tangible and actually have a plan to get there soon.

    Engineering by it’s nature is profitable, make space for engineers and you’ll see business get excited and that makes people excited.

  19. Oh and there is money to be made. More resources than you can “shake a stick at”

    there are a lot of unknowns but nothing to suggest getting them will be possible. In fact, with a little practice I’d bet it will be quite predicable (and eventually simple)

  20. well, as a follower of this objective to sustain life on Mars, I believe every thing is possible, and I promise within 20 years, I will have joined the futuristic project of setting a city on Mars, as well as Manned Asteroid Mission.
    Please see the future of our univers.

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