Monday, August 31, 2009

Asteroid mission getting attention

I love the movie Armageddon.

Sure, the movie wildly departs from the realities of space flight.

Two souped-up, top-secret military space shuttles are rolled out on a moment's notice, shipped to Kennedy Space Center and launched within minutes of another from adjoining pads.

A bunch of barely trained oil riggers make up an astronaut crew asked to save the world by crash-landing on a monster asteroid and bust it apart with a nuclear warhead. Oh, and they're supposed to fly safely home.

However, the underlying premise of the movie is very real, and more and more people are starting to say it would be a good idea for NASA to look at sending astronauts to an asteroid. Among them: the panel of space experts who are delivering their final report on the future of NASA to President Barack Obama this week.

In that report, the president will find at least a passing reference to a human mission to an asteroid -- or more precisely, a Near-Earth Object. Asteroids will be listed among the alternate targets of the deep-space or flexible path option that the committee describes as more sustainable than NASA's current plan.

It's not a new concept. People inside and outside NASA have long talked about the potential benefits of a human mission to a near-Earth object.

Former astronaut Eileen Collins, who commanded the space shuttle Discovery on NASA's first mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster, recently presented the idea to the NASA Advisory Council.

A mission to an asteroid, she and others argue, would push human exploration beyond our Earth and moon.

The mission would prove NASA's ability to field a long-duration, long-distance expedition that would demonstrate progress toward the ultimate goal of landing people on Mars or moving deeper into space.

Among the biggest hurdles to trips to Mars is our lack of knowledge, experience and technology to shield human explorers from deadly overexposure to deep space radiation.

But why an asteroid? Well, supporters say, we need to better understand the internal structure of asteroids. We need to know more about potential physics of a gigantic space rock slamming into the Earth and maybe even the best ways to try to prevent it when -- not if -- the threat arises.

That last item is among the reasons many cite for fielding such a mission -- it can capture people's imaginations and it seems important. It's dramatic because it sends people where they've never gone before. It's exciting because it addresses a real threat, albeit one that needs to be better communicated to the public.

What's more, it could be pulled off with variations of the rockets and spacecraft already being developed by NASA. It could be done sooner, cheaper and with more chance of success than the current Mars reference mission.

The presidential committee has said sending humans to Mars -- even in the next 20 years -- might not be possible because of limited funding and technological challenges. Among them: our inability to protect our astronauts from the killer dose of radiation they would be exposed to over a three-year round trip to Mars.

A trip to a near-Earth asteroid could take a few months to a year. It could help us improve our ability to send people further from Earth. And it could get people excited again about space travel.

There's a reason two Hollywood studios made very similar movies about the topic and millions of Americans piled into theaters to watch. It was interesting.


Anonymous said...

A trip to a NEO would be a neat 'stepping-stone' trip in preparation to a Mars Mission. Sort of like Apollo 8.

It would require a lot less hardware than a Mars mission, and therefore be cheaper. Also, one could 'take apart' various sections of the ISS and re-configure them to a NEO mission, then put them back when the mission is done.

The only large piece of new hardware required would be the booster rocket and it's fuel. Unless you can find ice on a NEO.

Rick Steele
Sarasota, Florida

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the complexity of a mission to a NEO; it would test many systems and start to address the management of a mission beyond the Earth & Moon - however, fundamental issues have yet to be addressed, i.e., method of lift, mission sustainability, astronaut shielding from life threatening radiation from greater exposure to solar flares, etc.
But no one has proposed what to do with such a mission besides answer questions which scifi thrillers have asked.
So, WHY go to a NEO? WHAT would we gain? Would it also be a one shot deal, equatable with the Apollo project? HOW would we manage to both get to AND return from said NEO? HOW LONG would said mission last? HOW MUCH would this single mission cost? Would it truly be a stepping stone to future missions, or a cost-overun graveyard of future space missions? What we really need is to establish what our actual purpose is in space. My own perspective is that we need to explore, exploit and expand - explore ALL space available to us using current technology, and as our technology, the sphere of exploration expands accordingly; exploit available resources; and finally expand humanity's influence over and habitation of space, not just the Moon and/or Mars, but we expand into all accessible locations, and learn to utilize all regions for our future success and survival.
B. Ivy Stiles
Rabun Gap, Ga

Anonymous said...

What would we gain? "Well, supporters say, we need to better understand the internal structure of asteroids. We need to know more about potential physics of a gigantic space rock slamming into the Earth and maybe even the best ways to try to prevent it when -- not if -- the threat arises."

We also very likely would get the same things we've gotten from the space program since Gemini: new technologies, new products, spin-offs from both, and the potential of discovery of new sources of minerals and other substances that might be of use. One suggestion: google Helium-3.

Grounded Spaceman said...

NASA has enough trouble leaving Earth on Obama's budget. Sci-Fiction is not the way to think right now....get real...

John Kelly said...

It's as realistic as a mission to Mars right now and remarkably more doable.

Until someone figures out radiation shielding that doesn't weigh more than NASA can launch efficiently, going to Mars is fiction unless you're willing to allow for a 1 in 1 chance of dooming the entire crew.

Anonymous said...

Another thing to be gained: Jobs. This country needs *more* good-paying jobs filled by smart people, not more fast food jobs for which Congress occasionally feels compelled to raise the minimum wage whenever they need to pander to poor.

Yes, human spaceflight is expensive, difficult, and dangerous. But the benefits are tangible, mostly with employment, but also with trickle-down technology, international prestige, and inspiration to the young.

Anonymous said...

John Kelly is correct in that a mission to Mars has a significant chance of losing the crew. But isn't that the point of space EXPLORATION? Hundreds of seafarers lost their lives before permanent settlements were established here on Earth. If we are to equate these risks with spacefarers, then the U.S. and world public must be willing to accept that some of the astronauts would not survive the journey to Mars. Or even perish on the surface. I would rather see humans sent to Mars to answer age-old questions. But if this is not possible - as the Augustine panel has intimated - then a voyage to an asteroid is preferable to endless circuits around the Earth

John Kelly said...

I think you misunderstand. There's not a chance that some of them would perish. Based on the technology currently available, most folks agree that it is a virtual certainty that all of them would perish. We would not currently launch a space shuttle mission knowing that we would kill the crew. We know there is risk whenever we launch humans into space, but we've never purposefully launched them on a mission that we knew would kill them. That's why there are radiation-exposure limits for space station long-duration crews.

Graham said...

Thats precisely why long duration moon missions are essential.You've got to go there and learn enough first.! Learn through development how to shield crews from radiation,how to live out there develope systems to cope with the extreme harsh environment.

Then and only then attempt a long duration mission to mars,and even then the risk will be great but we must do it.! We are explorers it's written in our DNA .!

A UK space fan.