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NASA ponders manned near-Earth asteroid visit

No plan to recruit bald oil-drilling expert, though

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A faction within NASA are proposing a disaster-movie-esque manned space mission to an asteroid on a trajectory close to Earth, it has been revealed.

Space.com reports that the new generation of "Constellation" manned spacecraft, with which NASA plans to replace the venerable space shuttle fleet, could be used. Constellation represents a return to old-school stacked rocket boosters, not unlike the famous Apollo craft which took men to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s.

Constellation, with its Orion crew module, is currently planned to lift astronauts to the International Space Station and then to the Moon again. Following that, President Bush has said America should send humans to Mars.

But, apparently, there are those at NASA who feel that the jump from Moon to Mars is too big to make in a oner. They suggest that the space agency should first attempt an easier and shorter trip, to a so-called Near Earth Object (NEO). This would be between the Moon and Mars missions in length and technical difficulty, giving NASA a chance to learn on the job. The scheme was advocated publicly by NASA's Paul Abell earlier this year.

The plan might also confer other benefits. NEOs are seen as a potential threat to humanity. If a sufficiently large one should appear on an orbit intersecting that of Earth, the potential exists for an Armageddon or Deep Impact style disaster - even the extinction of the human race.

At present, there are no NEOs known to present a threat. However, some contend that it makes sense to learn about them now. This could, of course, be done with robotic probes, but given that NASA plans to send people to Mars anyway it could make sense to use an NEO-probe mission as a stepping stone. The spacecraft could also conduct research which might be of use in future attempts to deal with dangerous emergent NEOs, killing two stones with one bird as it were.

Harrison Schmitt, former Apollo astronaut and chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, spoke to Space.com's Leonard David.

"I think examination of a NEO mission and the development of the stand-by monitoring systems, plans, protocols and procedures for the diversion of a potentially Earth-impacting asteroid would be very prudent activity for the US to undertake," he said.

Schmitt also suggested that Earth defence would be the primary motivation for the mission; asteroids were interesting scientifically, of course, but not that interesting.

There is also the argument that asteroids could be a useful source of materials and resources for future space platforms and colonies. Hauling stuff up out of Earth's gravity is prohibitively expensive for most purposes at present, and may never become cheap. It could make sense for astronauts of the future to start mining their own fuel and materials as soon as possible, in order to save on transport costs.

Again, however, this may have to wait. But a killer asteroid or comet strike may not be something that can be put off.

NASA chief Mike Griffin said last year: "Our species hasn't been around long enough to have experienced a cataclysmic extinction event. But they will occur again, whether we are ready for them or not."

As it stands, NASA's Constellation/Orion wouldn't be up to a Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall style NEO-busting visit. It would need more propulsion and living space. Lockheed Martin, builders of the Constellation system, reckon this could be accomplished with "block upgrades" in future, but didn't go into costs.

It has to be noted, however, that NASA has no mandate to carry out asteroid defence. Under President Bush's "vision for space exploration", it is largely limited to a research role. The space agency's Washington rivals for government cash might well resist anything that might be seen as NASA pushing for a budget increase.

Perhaps aptly, NASA advocates of a manned NEO mission are dubbed "NEOphytes" by Space.com, whose writeup is here. ®

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