New Robotic Fleet Would Support Space Missions

Robots, probes and other tech could help astronauts explore destinations beyond our moon.

THE GIST

New robotic probes meant to aid space exploration could fly in four years.

The expeditions would pave the way for astronauts landing on asteroid.

The missions would characterize the radiation risks for future human travelers and scout for resources.

The road to Mars begins with robots practicing landings on an asteroid, tests of new rocket engines and prototype orbital fueling depots, among other technologies.

So says NASA, which has put out a call to industry, academic and other potential partners to flesh out its new exploration blueprints, released last week in response to President Barack Obama's decision to nip the moon-centered Constellation program.

"If all we wanted to do was send some humans to the moon, have them walk around and return them safely to Earth, then the previous program may have been enough," Robert Braun, NASA's new chief technologist, told Discovery News.

"That's not enough for me. I want to send humans beyond Earth. I want a NASA that tries things that have never been done before," he said.

Rather than focusing on science objectives, the new robots, probes and technology prototypes NASA envisions under its new programs would pave the way for astronauts to visit an asteroid in 2025 and fly to Mars a decade later.

If approved by Congress, NASA aims to launch its first set of probes to the moon and a near-Earth asteroid in 2014. The missions would characterize the radiation risks for future human travelers, scout for resources that could be used for fuel, air, water and other life-support systems, and test equipment and sensors for future landings.

Additional probes, including a proposed tele-operated lunar lander, would follow about every 18 months.

"Our current missions are handicapped by our technology choices," said Braun, who is overseeing an effort to revive research and development at NASA after a decade of near-dormancy.

NASA also wants to fly a prototype 30-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system, an in-orbit refueling station and an inflatable space habitat that would be tested at the International Space Station.

"It's really time to open it up to a much broader community to get input," said Laurie Leshin, NASA's deputy director for science and technology.

The first proposals from industry are due Friday. NASA won't be moving ahead with any contracts until Congress approves its plans for human spaceflight beyond the shuttle and International Space Station, which is scheduled to be completed after two more missions. The shuttles are due to be retired later this year.

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