The “touch” of Asteroids
The number of asteroids potentially reachable from exploration of the human Solar System bodies in 1346, meeting the criteria of the Near Earth Object Human Spaceflight Accessible Targets Study, could serve as an intermediate step towards the conquest of Mars.
At the end of 2010 the number of asteroids identified as possible targets for human exploration was 666. But the unfortunate coincidence that tied the heavenly bodies with the number of the Beast must not go down to the boys of the NASA JPL who have since data to be done and this week made public the new data collected by the Near-Earth Program Office: the figure rises to 1346.
Credit: NASA / GFSC / Brent Barbee.
The number of those asteroids is meeting the criteria for selecting the NHATS, which stands for Near Earth Object Human Spaceflight Accessible Targets Study: an automated data collection based in Greenbelt, Maryland, which monitors and periodically updates the list of candidates to a future mission. The mid-step indicated by Obama, in the path that will bring the man and the US to Mars.
Compared to the Red Planet, some of these asteroids are a goal far more credible in the short term. They are closer, moderately expensive to reach and less risky. The capsule Orion Deep Space has performed well in its test flight last December, and the heat shield has held up properly during re-entry. But we are only at the beginning. The Space Launch System is missing, so the super rocket that would revolutionize the world of launchers is missing. All the intermediate steps that are used to manage a mission of this magnitude are missing. With Orion and SLS we barely know who’s who and how to return. As for the rest?
“When we were little more than boys, in the seventies, we imagined to spend their holidays on Callisto by 2015,” recalls nostalgic Brent Barbee of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and programmer NHATS. We now know that the spatial distances are much more complex to deal with. It’s been more than 40 years since (1973) NHATS spotted the first asteroid compatible that transited to 12,000 kilometers from Earth in June 2011. Today, expect major results from the missions in the pipeline: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which should be ready for 2021 or the Sentinel space Telescope to be launched in 2017.
We will never set foot on an asteroid? If humans have to wait, we can always send a robot. NASA has revealed its real interest in the issue since 2013, when it presented the New Asteroid Initiative to choose a suitable asteroid to be caught, dragged on intermediate orbit between Earth and the Moon and then explored by astronauts in the flesh. But individuals also have immediately set to work. Filmmaker James Cameron helped found a company from scratch to follow the asteroid hunt, the Planetary Resources. After some time, it have appeared even the Deep Space Industries, born with the same aim of exploiting using robots and automatic probes asteroids recovering their minerals.