Danger, President Obama! Visiting an Asteroid Is Exciting, but Difficult

By Andrew Moseman | April 22, 2010 2:09 pm

AsteroidIf you wanted dangerous, you got it.

One week ago today, in response to heavy criticism for killing the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, President Obama presented his revised vision for NASA: To build a new heavy lift spacecraft that will go beyond low Earth orbit and land on an asteroid by around 2025. This goal is far more ambitious than going back to the moon. Space experts say such a voyage could take several months longer than a journey to the moon and entail far greater dangers. “It is really the hardest thing we can do,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said [AP].

NASA doesn’t know which of the nearby asteroids it might pick for a visit, but the main candidates are around 5 million miles from Earth. The moon, by contrast, is a little less than a quarter-million miles away. The asteroids are about a quarter-mile across; the moon is more than 2,000 miles in diameter. And a trip to an asteroid could take 200 days, as opposed to the Apollo 11 lunar round-trip, which required little more than a week. That means NASA may have to devise new radiation shields and life-support systems for the asteroid-bound astronauts.

Once you get there, it’s no picnic either. You can’t actually land on an asteroid because it has so little gravity. Astronauts would have to somehow tether themselves to the rock to keep from floating away. (DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait cheered this bit of science fact in the 1998 disaster movie Deep Impact, in which the heroes encounter this problem while visiting a comet.)

Despite the challenge, there are several great reasons to go. The chemical composition of asteroids can give scientists clues about era of the planets’ formation, roughly four and a half billion years ago. And on a practical level, an asteroid mission would be a Mars training ground, given the distance and alien locale. “If humans can’t make it to near-Earth objects, they can’t make it to Mars,” said MIT astronautics professor Ed Crawley [AP].

And then there’s the heroic Hollywood angle: If we can land on an asteroid, we might also be able to blow one up, or nudge one into a new trajectory. NASA’s Near Earth Object Program has identified more than 1,000 “potentially hazardous asteroids.” … Sometimes they come really close — in March 2009 an asteroid passed by Earth at a distance of just about 49,000 miles [ABC News]. Our planet has taken enormous hits from asteroids throughout its geological history, including the 6-mile-wide asteroid that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

But if humans master the art of asteroid-handling, saving the planet from death from the skies might jump from fodder for terrible movies to reality. That “would demonstrate once and for all that we’re smarter than the dinosaurs and could therefore avoid what they didn’t”, White House science adviser John Holdren said [New Scientist].

So there it is, your ultimate response to people who whine that we shouldn’t spend money on space exploration: We must prove, once and for all, that we’re tougher than T. rex.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, in which the Bad Astronomer tackles the good and bad of sci-fi science.
DISCOVER: What To Do Before the Asteroid Strikes
80beats: Obama’s Space Speech: We’ll Go To Mars in this Lifetime
80beats: European Spacecraft Buzzes Past an Asteroid, Takes Pictures
Bad Astronomy: Obama lays out bold and visionary revised space policy

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • Ugh

    Who are we kidding? We’re not going to an asteroid. We’re not going to Mars either. Obama is just throwing these pipe dreams out there to divert attention from the fact that he’s trying to kill a real program with a real attainable goal, instead of securing proper funding for it.

    We need to go back to the moon. I don’t care if we’ve been there and done that. The fact is that we haven’t escaped low earth orbit in almost 40 years (almost my lifetime) and we need the practice. Apollo should have been carried to completion and followed up with moon base program in the 70’s. If that had happened, we’d probably be on Mars right now. But the reality is that we didn’t, so now we need to go back and pick up where we left off if we’re ever going to have any hope of interplanetary travel. The moon via Constellation would have provided that.

    Does anyone really believe that we’re going to just jump into a spacecraft and go on a 200 day mission to an asteroid after years of having no heavy-lift space capability whatsoever? Do people really believe that it’s a good idea to cede American space capability to Russia, China, and India? Do people really believe that NASA’s engineering base is going to stick around on some vague hope of a heavy lift booster at the end of the decade?

    Wake up folks. What our President wants is to for us to quite literally take a back seat to other countries in space. I realize that some of you probably agree with him. Hey that just leaves more money for social programs, right? But for the rest of you who care about our position as the #1 space-faring nation, don’t be snowed by these pipe dreams of travel to asteroids and whatnot. It’s not going to happen under this plan.

  • Brian Too

    I think it’s a great idea. Bold and innovative, and not stuck repeating yesterday’s glories.

    If mining asteroids has any practicality, this would go a long way towards establishing that. Lots of interesting science opportunites there too.

    Plus, if we found a planet-killer asteroid tomorrow, we really have no idea how we’d save ourselves. Yeah, sure, there are these ideas floating around, but who knows which are the best ones? You don’t want the Mission to Save Humanity resting on a totally untested version 1.0 effort.

  • Ugh

    Brian, it would be a great idea, if it were real. But what Obama has a proposed is extremely vague with no real timetable at all. And it’s an unrealistic goal anyway if we’re going to spend most of this decade hitching rides to LEO on Soyuz. Unfortunately we need to repeat yesterday’s glories because those glories are too far in the past. We’ve spent the past 40 years since Apollo playing around in low Earth orbit. Now we have to learn how to be interplanetary travelers again. The moon provides the perfect platform for that because it’s only a couple of days away, not 200! No one is going to accept the risk of making a 200 day trip into space when we haven’t been out of LEO in 50 years. That’s just a fact. Sorry, but Obama’s blowing smoke.

  • MikeK

    Establishing a base on the moon is a good idea if there is a target for doing so. This would take several trips just to find where to do it and then establish how to maintain it incorporating the resources of the moon. That said, a trip to an asteroid and back is doable without a giant booster or heavy lift system. The vehicle can be assembled in low earth orbit. That is something we have a good track record doing. There must be a multitude of possibilities for accomplishing an asteroid visit. One persons scope of what it will take to make this goal, yours, mine or any others individuals, is woefully short of insightful enough to determine the quality of the goal.

    Also I heard Obama is trying to quit smoking.

  • BillWhite36

    As another president said, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

  • http://www.buzzbooks-online.com David Jefferis

    Without the Grand Vision – mainly a simple target date with budget to support it – US astronauts will go nowhere, slowly and painfully.

    A return to the Moon, a rendezvous with an asteroid, a Mars mission – none will happen without that necessary One Big Step.

    The Moon could and should have been the 51st state by now – instead, the high frontier is increasingly likely to be owned by bolder cultures from the East.

    What a tragedy.

  • Adam

    After intial dislike i now support and am very excited about this new vision.

    The fact that this is likely going to put an already exciting industry, the private splaceflight industry on steroids.

    Who cares if russia and china have some nice capsules 5 years from now. When the united states could potentially have 4 different commercial space craft, and a commercial space station company.

    Do you realize the potential to dominate the space market? America is still the leader in aerospace, barely, but this will energize us like never before.

    However i do support a base on the moon, but not just for no reason. I believe we should set up a massive radio telescopes, and optical, IR, you name it. on the farside of the moon. It would give us a reason to practice construction methods, and give us an amazing new access to deep space. With out the atmosphere, and the low gravity massive telescopes could be built out of light parts.

    Possibly even parts of it manufactured on the moon. I believe though that commericial space companies will beat every nation to the moon. Bigelow spacestation company has already said they believe they’re space stations could be easily adapted to a habitat on the moon. This could truly be an exciting time.

  • m

    I’m with Ugh on this one. Wasting technological study on an asteroid is a huge waste of effort and money and will yeild different issues than say landing on a larger object like the Moon.

    Not saying its a bad idea. Just saying that if we want to go to Mars, developing technology to vist a low mass/low gravity object is wasted effort. Now is not the time for it.

    Practice landing on the Moon and you will be better able to actually land on (and take off from) MArs.

    Obama missed the boat on this one (gee – there’s a surprise. I’m glad i’m not an amercian). Sadly – it looks to me like political ideology has trumped practicality. Especially since the article goes out of its way to differential Obama from his “predecessor”. *sigh*

    Adam – some good ideas about the moon. Especially the telescopes. You would get images far supperior than hubble can yeild I’m guessing.

  • E.P. Grondine

    The only poll to ever ask US citizens about NASA’s role n dealing with the impact hazard placed it Number 1 in NASA’s priorities.

    I’m amazed at how little “space enthusiasts” understand about the use of the L2 Halo orbit.

    Ares 1 is a dog, as many saw from the very start.

    E.P. Grondine
    Man and Impact in the Americas

  • Trepanger

    Is going to an asteroid actually so much more difficult than landing on the moon (that’s not a rhetorical question, I’m actually curious)? It is certainly a longer trip, but it doesn’t require all the complex equipment needed to land on a gravitationally massive object like the moon. Living for a few hundred days in space is nothing we haven’t done before in space stations. Physically investigating the asteroid would be more akin to a rendezvous with the Hubble than landing on the moon (granted there would be many complications). We would also have to deal with higher levels of radiation.

    This project would provide experience in more extended manned space flight and techniques for dealing with radiation. It seems like excellent practice for a trip to Mars. Going to the moon would be like practice for setting up a base on Mars, also valuable. Another note, a trip to an asteroid would not merely be a demonstration of our space skills, practice for going to Mars, and a mission in pure science. It would also pave the way for commercial trips to asteroids and potentially asteroid mining. The budget of NASA is trivial compared to that of the mining companies. Capitalism may have its faults, but any future in space is dependent upon it, as NASA has made abundantly clear.

  • John Prescott

    Wayward asteroids are a clear and present danger to humanity. The moon is not going to crash into the Earth and destroy us. A space rock may. Our priority should be self survival. An asteroid mission would be a big step in the right direction. Forget politics. This makes so much more sense than going back to the moon, or even to Mars. The moon and Mars will be there a long time. Humanity may not unless we learn how to divert asteroids. Priorities, people! If we preserve life on Earth, we will be able to explore the Universe. If not, nothing else will matter. There is no rush to get to Mars, let alone back to the moon. We may be running out of time on the space rock danger.

  • Simon

    I support visiting an asteroid in hopes of thwarting extinction. Clearly there is an urgency to do so and this has nothing to do with “social programs” @Ugh … Maybe Hubble spotted something hurling our way??? By the time we make extreme space travel, humanity will have undergone cyborg chip eugenics—making it possible to withstand temperature levels. Not to mention have superhuman powers with the help of gene therapy and nanotechnology!!! Yay!!!

  • http://www.crossfirefusion.com/thruster Martin

    Visiting asteroids will be exciting, and not so difficult with a fusion-powered spacecraft. http://tinyurl.com/fusion-powered-space-drive

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