In keeping with President Barack Obama's 2010 vision, the space agency has shifted its sights from returning to the moon and, instead, is aiming for a smaller -- and possibly more dangerous -- rock in space, Space.com reports.
"By 2025, we expect a new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space," Obama said last year at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
At least the first asteroid-bound trip won't follow the script of the 1998 sci-fi adventure "Armageddon." In that scenario, a deep core drilling team, led by Bruce Willis, is sent to a huge asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Their mission: to nuke it before it arrives and causes chaos to our home planet.
While scientists consider ways to avoid a possible future asteroid-Earth collision, they're also figuring out which of the 7,000 known rocky asteroids between Mars and Jupiter might make a suitable landing spot for astronauts.
"Long outbound and inbound trip times are going to be very challenging," said Andy Thomas, a veteran space shuttle astronaut who works for the exploration branch of the Astronaut Office.
"These missions are going to be very, very risky," he added. "They are going to be as much risk as the Apollo missions were. To try and sell it to the public purely on the basis of the scientific return ... would probably not work."
Part of the risk of sending humans to one of these giant space rocks involves the weak gravitational field of many asteroids. It would be very difficult to actually land on one. The option would be to travel side-by-side with the asteroid as astronauts go back and forth collecting samples and doing science experiments.
Are the scientific results worth the effort? Is it better to send people instead of robots? And is there an available budget for this endeavor?
All good questions.
First, asteroid materials can provide scientists with clues about how the solar system was created and, in turn, help us learn how life started on Earth.
Asteroids may also become valuable sources of metals, minerals, gases and even water that can be used as future resources.
Sending robots vs. humans to an asteroid would certainly be less risky and expensive, but experts need to address the question of whether robots can perform all of the intricate tasks that astronauts would be better trained for.
"Despite national advisory council recommendations, congressional mandates and the newly recognized needs for both exploration and planetary defense, there is no new funding and, thus, no administrator who wants to get stuck with the bill," said Richard Binzel, a planetary science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"The issue is sorely in need of an adult sense of responsibility."
Read more at Space.com.
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