NASA plans to retire the International Space Station in 2020, and the agency is currently looking at ways that the venerable orbiter could further serve the world's space exploration needs. One idea? Using a module from the station to go check out asteroids.
During brainstorming sessions in January and June, NASA and its related agencies spent some time looking at the best ways to explore NEOs, or Near Earth Objects. (Interested parties can see the fruits of those brainstorms here, if you don't mind a PDF download.)
One such idea is to use the ISS's Node 3, or Tranquility crew module, and attach it to one or more smaller space craft. The crew module's docking ability and its design, which is meant to cater to the needs of a crew that'll be in space for a while, make it ideal for something like asteroid exploration. When astronauts come close to a NEO, the smaller spacecraft could then undock from the Tranquility module, returning when a mission checking out a space rock is complete.
This could be the first step in what could become a profitable business in the near future: using a crew module as a small space station of a kind, while smaller craft launch from it and mine a nearby asteroid belt.
It's all part of NASA's new initiative to explore and possibly exploit asteroids by 2025 instead of returning to the moon by 2020.
Via New Scientist