Thu, May 08, 2008 - Page 7 News List

NASA mulls plan to land astronauts on 40m asteroid


It was once considered the most dangerous object in the universe, heading for Earth with the explosive power of 84 Hiroshimas. Now an asteroid called 2000SG344, a lump of rock barely the size of a large yacht, is in the spotlight again, this time as a contender for the next giant leap for mankind.

NASA engineers have identified the 1.1 million tonne asteroid, which in 2000 was given a significant chance of slamming into Earth, as a potential landing site for astronauts, ahead of plans by the US President George W. Bush administration to venture deeper into the solar system with a crewed voyage to Mars.

The mission — the first to what officials call a Near Earth Object — is being floated within the US space agency as a crucial stepping stone to future space exploration.

A report said that by sending astronauts on a three-month journey to the hurtling asteroid, scientists believe they would learn more about the psychological effects of long-term missions and the risks of working in deep space, and it would allow astronauts to test kits to convert subsurface ice into drinking water, breathable oxygen and even hydrogen to top up rocket fuel. All of which would be invaluable before embarking on a two-year expedition to Mars.

Under the Bush administration, NASA has been charged with sending astronauts back to the moon, beginning in 2020 and culminating in a permanent lunar outpost, itself a jumping off point for more distant Mars missions. With the agency’s aging fleet of space shuttles due to be retired soon after 2010, the agency has begun work on a replacement called Orion and a series of Ares rockets that will blast them into orbit.

In a study due to be published next month, engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Ames Research Center in California flesh out plans to use Orion for a three to six month round-trip to the asteroid, with astronauts spending a week or two on the rock’s surface.

As well as giving space officials a taste of more complex missions, samples taken from the rock could help scientists understand more about the birth of the solar system and how best to defend against asteroids that veer into Earth’s path.

“An asteroid will one day be on a collision course with Earth. Doesn’t it make sense, after going to the moon, to start learning more about them? Our study shows it makes perfect sense to do this soon after going back to the moon,” said Rob Landis, an engineer at Johnson Space Center and coauthor of the report, which is due to be published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

More precise measurements of the orbit of 2000SG344 have allayed fears that it could hit Earth sometime around the end of September 2030, but the asteroid is still expected to come close in astronomical terms.

The report lays out plans for a crew of two to rendezvous with a speeding asteroid that is due to pass close by Earth. After a seven-week outward journey, the Orion capsule would swing around and close in on the rock.

Because gravity is close to zero on asteroids, the capsule would need to attach itself, possibly by firing anchors into the surface. For the same reason, astronauts would not be able to walk around on the surface as they did on the moon.

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