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The Case for Astronauts to Asteroids August 5, 2010

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

USA Today ran a front-page story on NASA’s plans to send human explorers to nearby asteroids on June 21. However, Traci Watson’s excellent article, constrained by space, told only part of the story. Illustrating the story, her editors chose to print, instead of a spacecraft image of an actual Near-Earth Object, only a Hollywood still shot of actor Billy Bob Thornton in “Armageddon.” Sigh.

Here is my letter to USA Today, which the paper declined to publish:

To the Editors:

The case for sending “Astronauts to Asteroids” (June 21, front page) as the next U.S. destination in space is even more attractive than Ms. Watson stated. Exploring asteroids with robots and humans will bring rich rewards, and we can do it much sooner than the 2025 target date President Obama mentioned in April.

First, some Earth-approaching asteroids and comets take less rocket power to reach than the Moon’s surface. Yes, round trips take several months, but because asteroids have very little gravity, astronauts won’t need an expensive lander (and its fuel) to reach a NEO’s surface. For example, the Ares V rocket and Orion spacecraft, now proposed for cancellation by the president, would be capable of reaching a number of small asteroids.

Second, nearby asteroids are ancient objects preserving almost unaltered minerals from the formation of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago. Astronaut explorers would collect many kilograms of these relics from several asteroids, rich in clues to Earth’s early chemistry and biology, and return them for study.

Some of those same asteroids will be rich in water, metals, and rare elements that are keys to jump-starting a space economy and reducing the costs of further exploration. Scientists think some NEOs are more than 10% water, plenty to furnish space industries with rocket fuel, breathing oxygen, and raw materials.

Fourth, nearby asteroids are stepping stones to even more distant destinations. Enroute to an asteroid, astronauts can test their life support equipment, propulsion systems, exercise gear, and radiation shielding, essential components needed for much longer voyages to Mars.

Finally, although astronauts won’t be involved directly in stopping an asteroid headed our way, (robots would do that job far from Earth), their exploring skills rapidly generate the detailed knowledge we will need to someday divert a rogue asteroid. Asteroid impacts that can destroy cities and “kill thousands” occur not every 30,000 years, but every few centuries. The last, a blast equal to about 5 megatons of TNT, struck in Siberia 102 years ago. A few astronaut expeditions can provide us with this crucial “planetary defense” information.  What more important mission could astronauts take on than the job of preventing a cosmic catastrophe?

A Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) may be the next destination for U.S. astronauts (courtesy PanSTARRS)

If NASA received just 0.6% of the federal budget instead of the half-penny of every tax dollar it receives today, astronauts could follow robot explorers to nearby asteroids by 2020, then move on to exploiting the Moon or the satellites of Mars. The president’s goal of 2025 is a political light year away, but 2020 is close enough that politicians could show support now and see real progress in just a few years.

Sending astronauts to asteroids is a logical and practical way to ensure the nation’s high-tech competitiveness and prepare our young people for the challenges of the 21st century, in space and on Earth. President Obama and Congress should provide the resources, direct NASA and its partners to reach nearby asteroids by 2020, and watch America lead the way.

Thomas D. Jones, PhD

The author is a planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut.


Facebook: Astronaut Tom Jones

Twitter: Tomjones_astro



1. Paul Novak - August 10, 2010

When referring to the impact in Siberia, are you meaning the Tunungska impact? I was under the impression that many scientist felt it was an icy rocky body similar to a comet that basically detonated above ground level from atmospheric shockwaves?

At any rate, I have a somewhat jaundiced eye towards any plans for our nations space programs. It feels to me like we have set ourselves back 40 years.

skywalking1 - August 12, 2010

Yes, the Tunguska impact was about a 5 MT blast (airburst) whose shock waves carried downward and caused the 2000 square km tree blowdown.
Scientists think it was most likely a weak, stony asteroid. See:

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