Bootprints On An Asteroid

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All the scuttlebutt is that the upcoming Augustine report — prepared by a presidential advisory panel commissioned by the Obama administration to study NASA’s future — will conclude

that the Moon is too expensive a destination for aspiring astronauts under NASA $18.7 billion/yr. budget. 

A significant cost for a return-to-moon effort is carrying

enough fuel along to descend into the moon’s gravitational field and then climb

back out of the moon’s gravity to come home.

But there are other places in space that are easier to land

on.

For several year there have been various proposals to send a

small crew aboard the Constellation Program’s Orion capsule to rendezvous with

a Near Earth Asteroid (NEO). (good luck trying to do a Google search on NEOs,

you’ll come up with listing for the 1999 film, “the Matrix”)

One NEO being proposed as a destination for a human visit

has the non-threatening “license plate” designation 2000SG344.

Only about half the length of a football field, this rock

tips the scales at 1 million tons. If it slammed into Earth it would pack a

wallop of a 1-megaton nuclear explosion. 

The asteroid passed near Earth in 2000, and is scheduled to buzz our

planet again in 2030.

Carrying a two-person crew, the Orion could be launched on a several-month long round trip mission. This would be a much longer than a

journey to the moon where a round trip is about a week. The crew would stay at

the asteroid for one or two weeks.

It would be a dangerous mission largely due to the threat of

solar flares that could expose the crew to lethal doses of radiation. A

radiation “storm cellar” could be improvise by having the crew blanket

themselves inside a jacket of water from the Orion’s water storage tanks.

Upon arrival the Orion vehicle would fly in formation with

the asteroid. A more deluxe version of the mission being floted by the Lockheed-Martin Corp. would

have a customized upper stage of the Altair lunar lander make contact with the surface and

anchor itself with spidery grappling cables. The Orion would remain attached to

the lander.

Rather than “landing” on as asteroid this would be more like

docking with an asteroid becasue of the almost non-existent gravitational

field.

The asteroid has so little gravity it would be very

difficult if not impossible to walk across the surface. It would be more like

doing a spacewalk. The astronauts might opt for rocket backpacks where they

could do leisurely ballistic “hops” across the surface.

Though asteroid research could is done more inexpensively

with robotic probes, this mission would test the “sea legs” of both the Orion

crew and vehicle.

One idea is to dock two Orion’s nose-to-nose so there is more elbow room and some redundancy. Astronauts flying manned maneuvering units could travel

between the “Siamese Twin” Orion’s and the asteroid  without the need for a complicated asteroid landing vehicle.

Though among the solar system’s smallest objects, asteroids will play a big role in our future exploration of space. They are a source of raw

material that can be easily mined because of the low gravity.

They are potential threats to Earth, that could be deflected

from a collision if we could develop the technology for modifying asteroid

orbits. Perhaps during the rendezvous mission a small ion engine could be placed on the asteroid to test if

it could be deflected into a different orbit by remote control from Earth.

I believe an asteroid visit would be far more exciting to the public than a

moon trip because it would be the 

first interplanetary voyage ever undertaken by mankind. It might also help us figure out how to save the human race from extinction by an asteroid impact.

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