Those who keep track of such things will know that there is a lot of discussion as to where man will head next, in its continuing journey in to space. Bush wants us to head back to the Moon in 2020, and set up a lunar outpost. Experts want us to forget the Moon and head straight to Mars.
But a new report out of NASA is looking at sending a two man crew to rendezvous with 2000 SG344, an asteroid discovered in 1999 and with a diameter of 40 meters.
The asteroid, which was in 2000 given a high chance of striking Earth (but has since been relegated to unlikely, along with so many others), has been identified as a potential landing site for astronauts. However, more than just the next step in our outward journey, this mission would also provide experts with invaluable data about long term journeys.
The journey, approximately three months in total, would provide scientists with information on the psychological effect of a long term journey. In addition, it would give the astronauts the chance to test kits to convert subsurface ice in to drinking water, breathable oxygen, and possibly even hydrogen to top up the rocket fuel. All of these would greatly benefit NASA in their quest to eventually send man to Mars.
We’ve discussed many times that by the end of 2010 NASA’s fleet of shuttles will be put out to pasture. NASA will then replace them with their new spacecraft Orion, to be launched using a set of Ares rockets. In a study to be published next month, written by engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Ames Research Center in California, the plan to create a round trip mission to the asteroid are fleshed out fully, and provide experts with a taste of more complex missions, like ones that may one day face us as we head to Mars.
"An asteroid will one day be on a collision course with Earth. Doesn't it make sense, after going to the moon, to start learning more about them? Our study shows it makes perfect sense to do this soon after going back to the moon," said Rob Landis, an engineer at Johnson Space Centre and co-author of the report, which is due to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica.
Some of the complications they will face are the fact that asteroids do not have any gravity of their own. Thus the capsule would need to attach itself to the asteroid, possibly via firing anchors in to the surface. In addition, astronauts would not necessarily be able to walk around on its surface without being kicked in to orbit around the asteroid, or simply out in to space.
Landis also believes that, compared to a return trip to the Moon, a mission to a moving target such as an asteroid would capture the imaginations of the people more. "When we head back to the moon, I think we'll see many of the same scenes we saw in the 60s and 70s Apollo programmed. We've been to the moon; we got that T-shirt back in 1969. But whenever we've sent robotic probes to look at asteroids, we've always been surprised at what we've seen," he said.
Another bonus of heading to an asteroid is the possible answers it could provide scientists about the beginning of the universe. Many asteroids are remnants of the early universe, being formed from impacts and explosions many millions of years ago. Analyzing samples from them could thus shed light on conditions that existed well before Earth was around.
Posted by Josh Hill.