Astronauts to land on speeding asteroid by late 2020s

May 28 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Space   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

A lump of rock more than 40 meters in diameter speeding through space at 28,000 mph, once considered the most dangerous object in the universe, is about to become the site for humanity’s next “giant leap for mankind.”

NASA engineers have selected asteroid 2000SG344 – which in 2000 was given a significant chance of slamming into Earth with the explosive power of 750 Hiroshimas – as the perfect space object to study. The operation would take place before the 2030 Mars journey, a speculative trip bandied about ever since the first President Bush mentioned in 1989 that America should send men to the red planet.

The asteroid mission represents a crucial step for America’s space program. A report to be published next month in the journal Acta Astronautica describes plans to use the soon-to-be-developed Orion space ship for a three-to-six month round-trip to the asteroid, with two explorers spending up to two weeks on the rock’s surface.

As well as providing experience for longer Mars trips, samples taken from the rock could help scientists convert sub-surface ice into drinking water and breathable oxygen, understand more about the birth of the solar system, and how best to defend Earth against dangerous asteroid collisions. (cont.)

Report co-author Rob Landis described the mission’s importance this way: “An asteroid will one day be on a collision course with Earth. Doesn’t it make sense to start learning more about them? Our study indicates that we should do this as soon as possible.”

In 1980, only 86 near-Earth asteroids and comets were known to exist. By 1990, the figure had risen to 170; by 2000, it was 921; and today the Jet Propulsion Laboratory places the estimate at 5,388.

Asteroid collisions should not be taken lightly. Experts recently discovered that an object 300 meters in diameter hit Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria in 536 A.D. Landing in water prevented the worst damage, but debris, dust, and gases were still thrown into the atmosphere by the impact, which blocked sunlight and temporarily cooled the planet. Byzantine historian Procopius wrote of, “dim skies, cold summers, and poor harvests in 536 and 537, and frost that covered China in the summertime.”

Earth has experienced several mass extinctions from asteroid encounters. The dinosaurs died about 65 million years ago; 96 percent of the world’s marine species were zapped 250 million years ago; and around 10000 BC, woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and mastodons all disappeared.

Today, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036, which could hit with 60,000 times the force of Hiroshima – enough to destroy an area the size of France. Aerospace Corporation’s William Ailor believes that Earth has a one-in-10 chance per century of a dangerous space-object strike.

Learning to control asteroids will provide civilization with more safety, but there are other benefits also. Asteroids maneuvered into orbit around Earth could be mined for their treasure trove of minerals, and others could become outposts to aid construction of space hotels and other facilities.

Positive futurists believe that landing men on an asteroid speeding through space will capture world imagination as we head into this breathtaking “magical future.”

What will be the most important benefit of an asteroid landing?

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