NASA's ambitious plan to snag an asteroid and put it into orbit for astronauts to explore should help put people on Mars, space agency officials said Tuesday (April 29).
Called the Asteroid Redirect Mission, NASA's plan involves capturing a relatively small asteroid using a robotic spacecraft and placing it into orbit around the moon where astronauts can visit the asteroid in 2025.
While this may sound like a very specific kind of mission, the technology and skills used to get astronauts safely to and from the asteroid will help NASA get to the Red Planet. On the asteroid mission, scientists and engineers will be able to work out some potential problems that astronauts could encounter on a mission to Mars, expected to take place sometime in the 2030s.
Just as the Mercury and Gemini missions helped the Apollo missions reach the moon, the Asteroid Redirect Mission will help NASA pave the way for a trip to Mars, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said here at NASA headquarters during today's forum on Mars exploration. [NASA's Asteroid-Capture Mission in Photos]
"We need to hone our skills in the proving ground of space, much like we did with the Mercury and Gemini leading up to Apollo," Gerstenmaier said. "We built skills. We built techniques. We built operational techniques … We're really preparing ourselves for that ultimate goal toward Mars."
NASA officials are still working out the specifics of the asteroid redirect mission. They plan to pick one of two possible asteroid capture missions by December, Michele Gates, senior technical advisor of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said during the forum.