One of the problems with the U.S. space program ever since the landing on the moon, over forty years ago, has been the lack of an overall plan and vision. There have been some significant and memorable accomplishments, such as the Space Shuttle program and the building of the International Space Station, as well as the breathtaking photographs returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, but these were individual accomplishments. Thankfully, this is now beginning to change. With the establishment of a national goal of a manned flight to Mars by the 2030s, as well as work beginning on the actual hardware, such as the SLS booster and the Orion spacecarft that will be needed to accomplish that goal, we will no longer be just going up and pointlessly orbiting the Earth, as we did with the Space Shuttle. This article will focus on another aspect of our plans for space that may be a little less glamorous that going to Mars, but may be no less important; the detection of asteroids that may be a threat to Earth and our efforts to actually use them to help in our exploration of space.
In recents months, such events as the flyby of asteroid 2012-DA and the near-simultaneous explosion of a smaller asteroid in the skies over Russia, as well as several near-misses by some considerably larger space bodies, has heightened public awareness of the possibility that one of these objects might actually collide with the Earth, as has happened several times in the past, thereby ending all life or at least a good part of it. NASA has long had a project of searching the skies with telescopes to detect any asteroids or other objects heading for the Earth, and this search has recently been expanded. NASA has also reached out to the amateur astronomy community to enlist its help in looking for these objects. All this is good, but the fact remains that if a large asteroid or comet is found heading for Earth, right now there is little that NASA or anyone else could do about it.
This is where something comes in that might sound like science fiction. Right now all we know about asteroids and comets and similar bodies is what we can see through telescopes, or what space probes have sent back to us. The United States is planning a mission, by around 2018, to locate a small asteroid and actually bring it back, to orbit the Earth in a manner similar to our moon (see illustration). This way we could learn a lot more about its composition and characteristics, by actually sending astronauts to work on it. This would be a small asteroid, probably about the size of the one that exploded over Russia, but what we learn from this could be applied to much larger ones, including ones possibly headed for Earth. In addition, the very act of finding an asteroid and bringing it to near-Earth would add to our ability to operate in space, which is essential if we ever really are to make long voyages to the other planets in our solar system and possibly even much further. This would also enable us to determine the best way to destroy or deflect a rogue asteroid or comet. There have been companies that have already been formed to do ‘space mining’. If we could mine the asteroid belt for materials that we need and which are being rapidly depleted on Earth, there’s no telling what we may eventually be able to accomplish. So, as you see, we are breaking away from the pattern of the last forty years, where we just repeated the same thing over and over again. Let China go to the moon if it wants to. We’re going to the stars!