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NASA boffin outlines asteroid mission

Early stages, but possible

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Humans might soon head to the asteroids, if a NASA scientist gets his way.

Dr Paul Abell has proposed sending a manned mission to a relatively small near-Earth asteroid once the Crew Explorations Vehicle (CEV) - the replacement for Shuttle - is in service.

Abell says the plan would be to send two or three people on a mission that would last between 90 and 180 days. The astronauts would not stay long on the surface, though, just seven to 14 days. The spacecraft would remain in orbit during that time.

Dr Abell says he would expect any mission to be accompanied by several robots - both to work as advance parties to potential asteroids, and also to carry out work considered too risky for the human crew.

He told the BBC that the mission is still very much at the concept stage, but that there were no major technical reasons it couldn't be done.

"We carried out this feasibility study to see if there were any showstoppers. The answer seems to be 'yes, this can be done'."

If he manages to persuade NASA bosses of the merits of his scheme, it would be the first time a human being has left the Earth-Moon system.

For the concept to proceed, NASA has to formally evaluate the feasibility study and give it the green light.

There are several good reasons to proceed with the mission, according to Dr Abell. Firstly, he says such missions would be useful practise for a defence against potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, as in the Bruce-Willis-killing Armageddon.

The mission would also be useful preparation for longer haul trips to Mars - astronauts could use the time to learn how to tap into the resources in space, such as mining an asteroid for hydrogen and oxygen to make water.

Further, any samples taken could be returned to Earth, where their analysis would reveal huge amounts about the early days of the solar system.

Abell didn't give any indication of how long NASA might think this one over, but there is no real rush: Shuttle is not due to be retired until 2010, when it will be replaced by the CEV. ®

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