Plans for sending humans to visit an asteroid are heating up, with at least one company already scoping out the technological essentials for a deep space expedition within a decade, given the go-ahead.
The asteroid space trek is seen as both scientifically valuable and as a dress rehearsal for a Mars mission, NASA officials have said. It could also hone ideas for planetary defense to guard Earth from a messy head-on clash with a space rock.
Launching a manned asteroid mission by 2025 is NASA’s new goal set by President Barack Obama, who announced the plan in April. The deep space mission would serve as a stepping stone to a crewed mission to Mars in the mid-2030s, he said.
Lockheed Martin, which has been building NASA’s Orion space capsule to replace the agency’s retiring shuttle fleet, has already completed a study on how an asteroid mission might work.
Determining how best to dispatch a crew to an asteroid is now high on NASA’s to-do list. The agency held a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C., this month to discuss ways to explore NEOs with robots and astronauts.
The workshop’s primary goals were “to increase the collective understanding of NEOs, communicate NASA’s plans for a human mission to a NEO in the 2024-2026 timeframe, and receive community input on mission objectives,” said Douglas Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems.
Determining what technologies and other information will be required before even attempting an asteroid-bound mission with astronauts, or setting planetary defense plans in case of potential impacts, is vital.
NASA plans to retire its three remaining space shuttles next year and rely on Russian, Japanese and European spacecraft to send cargo and crews to the International Space Station until U.S.-built commercial spaceships are available.
Meanwhile, NASA is continuing work on the crew-carrying Orion space capsule originally developed for the agency’s moon-oriented Constellation program, which Obama canceled as part of the new space plan.
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