April 17, 2013
Human Asteroid Exploration: The Long And Storied Path
Within NASA´s new FY2014 budget proposal lies a project known as the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission. This project would be the first to capture a small near-Earth asteroid and safely redirect it to a lunar orbit so that astronauts can visit and explore it. Such a mission would expand scientific knowledge of the origins of both humanity and the universe.
Over the next two decades NASA continued studies and technology development work that would facilitate the capture and exploration of asteroids. In 1992, NASA sponsored a “Near-Earth-Object Interception Workshop” in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At this workshop, those present discussed a “space-based fabrication of very large, microlayer solar sails for asteroid retrieval.” Also discussed was the idea that “such capabilities clearly depend on much expanded human operations in space.” More recently, the International Space Station, has allowed NASA and its international partners to both complete a great deal of research on how to live and work in space, and also to explore long-duration human space flight and its effects on astronauts.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, NASA has also sent several missions to explore asteroids. Multiple probes have completed flybys of asteroids on their way to other planets, and two missions have launched specifically to study asteroids. NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous)-Shoemaker became the first spacecraft to orbit and touch down on an asteroid when it reached the asteroid Eros in 2000 and descended to its surface in 2001, and in July 2011, the Dawn spacecraft became the first probe to enter orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt when it reached the asteroid Vesta. Having completed its investigation of Vesta, Dawn is now on its way to our solar system´s largest asteroid, Ceres.
Thus, NASA´s new Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission is deeply rooted in the storied past of the agency. Thanks to many years of planning and recent technology developments, NASA now has the capability to accelerate current programs that are working on high-powered solar electric propulsion. This, alongside our work on the Space Launch System launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft, will help us achieve a goal first imagined in the 1960s of retrieving an asteroid for human exploration.
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