Will NASA's Next Step Be an Astronaut Rendezvous With an Asteroid?

By Allison Bond | July 31, 2009 3:18 pm

astronautA panel evaluating NASA‘s goals has made some bold suggestions for the agency, including yearlong missions into deep space and even landing on Mars‘ moon, Phobos.

NASA’s current goal is to land humans on the moon once again by 2020, but the panel, which was set up by the White House, has suggested other possible ventures that could speed NASA towards another goal: a manned mission to Mars. For example, long missions to deep space would help scientists learn how to manage long-duration space missions far from Earth, which human missions to Mars would require…”It is true we need to gain experience exploring planetary surfaces, but in fact we’ve done some of that…. What we actually have almost no experience at all with is operations in deep space” [New Scientist], said committee member Edward Crawley. Missions into deep space would require further research into how to protect humans from space radiation, the harmful charged particles from which lower-orbit missions are shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Furthermore, the panel recommended against landing on other planets in an effort to keep costs from becoming, well, astronomical. They touted a more ambitious plan to skip the Moon and aim directly for Mars and what the members called the “flexible path,” which would avoid the “deep gravity wells” of the Moon and Mars, saving the time and cost of developing landers to carry astronauts to the surfaces of those bodies [The New York Times]. Passing by the moon could even give way to missions to the famous Lagrangian points, first to the location where the gravity of the Moon and the Earth gravity cancel each other out, then to where the gravity of the Earth and Sun cancel out. There could also be visits to asteroids or flybys of Mars leading to landings on one or both of the low-gravity moons of Deimos and Phobos [The New York Times].

If NASA wants to land somewhere in space, they could do so on small bodies, such as an asteroid. This would pose similar challenges to docking with another spacecraft, and could happen within six years of setting out to accomplish the goal, committee members said. But not everyone is convinced that NASA should bypass the moon–the panel is also discussing the option of constructing a lunar outpost to eventually facilitate human missions to Mars. In one version of this option, hardware would be designed from the beginning to be used on Mars, with the moon missions serving to test it [New Scientist].

Another possibility that could facilitate exploration is orbiting fuel depots, the panel said, which could help cut down on costs by allowing for lighter, cheaper rockets. In this vision, fuel would be ferried to the depot by small rockets operated by private companies. Competition for this work would drive down costs and spur development of more efficient launch vehicles [New Scientist]. NASA’s astronauts could then take off from Earth in small, light rockets, and would stop by the depot to fuel up before heading on to their destination. But all these ideas are still strictly hypothetical; the panel’s final recommendations are expected in late August. 

Related Content:
80beats: 40 Years After Moon Landing, a Question Remains: What Next?
80beats: Russian Probe Tried to Beat Apollo to the Moon—But It Crashed
80beats: Buzz Aldrin Speaks Out: Forget the Moon, Let’s Head to Mars
80beats: Obama Orders a Review of NASA’s Human Space Flight Program
DISCOVER: Russia’s Dark Horse Plan to Get to Mars explores Russia’s Phobos plans

Image: flickr / Royalty-free image collection

  • http://www.pagef30.com Mithridates

    Definitely in favour of the idea of going to a small asteroid before going somewhere like the Moon and Mars. Though we’ve only had a total of some 13 hours or so on the Moon’s surface people still act as if we’ve conquered the place, and perhaps going to a completely new destination first would be a good way to tune down the skepticism a bit. Not to mention the fact that going to an asteroid is actually much easier, since even though it would take a few months it wouldn’t require a separate rocket for the return trip as it would be a simple undocking from the asteroid, and in the meantime the images of the completely new environment would be broadcast around the world.

    I would recommend the following order: one or two trips to an asteroid –> Moon colonization –> manned Venus flyby –> then decide whether to go to a destination like Ceres, or perhaps Mars or even Cruithne.

  • YouRang

    Still the #1 priority is a space station (unmanned most of the time) in an unbound orbit that acts like a ferry powered by ion propulsion. When the space station passes earth, an Apollo style shuttle ferries the astronauts to the large ferry which is already going fast enough to escape earth’s gravity. (Need to make sure the orbit is a free return orbit in case the Apollo capsule fails to dock with the space shuttle.) Then when it gets to its destination another Apollo capsule separates with a Lunar lander style shuttle; and the space station continues on in an unbound orbit with a return in a few weeks to pick up the Apollo capsule/lunar style lander.
    Of course ultimately you would like to land on the moon to build a circumlunar maglev (actually maglev/mag-anti-lev) to accelerate and decelerate the space station with no loss of power. (needs to be primarily also anti-lev to hold the space station against centrifugal force).


    I’ve always asked myself, who is that astronaut in that chair thing? Any ideas?

  • Paganel

    – Buzz Aldrin comments on the “Monolith” on Mars Moon Phobos…
    – APOLLO 11 UFO… VIDEO: “I Saw Structures on the Moon”:

  • scribbler

    Personally, I think it unwise to by pass all the resources the moon holds that would be VERY useful on any venture further out in space. What with the water, metals, minerals and protection from space a simple tunnel would provide, I think it prudent to first develop the moon as a staging area for further missions.

    However, there is nothing that precludes putting a man on an asteroid at the same time…

    As for building stations and fuel storage units and stuff, it would certainly be easier, in my opinion, to put them on the surface of bodies already in space.

  • http://www.myreferenceframe.com/ My Reference Frame

    That picture is of of Bruce McCandless in 1984 using the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_McCandless_II.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loC4uQW5oHU rapid cash tornado

    Will NASA’s Next Step Be an Astronaut Rendezvous With an Asteroid? | 80beats | Discover Magazine . LOL, awesome dude.

  • http://WWW.orangjadahatke.biz Winston Mingioni

    Youmadea few

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003406755362 Rahmat

    That is amazing. How does one cclluaate that to determine this asteroids orbits and path even as now, let along so far in the future? I find it hard to believe that someone, with a great intrest in calculus and/or geometgery, would spend a good part of his life calculating this so I figure it was done by computer. At any rate it’s amazing.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar