There's a lot of talk about what NASA's deep space manned missions will look like, and now a news article is giving us a sneak peek ahead of any official announcement: sending a crew of astronauts to land on a nearby asteroid, which would mean boldly going where no human has ever gone before.
While NASA isn't set to reveal details of a manned asteroid mission until later this month at a conference in Japan, early details a leaking out in a report by Richard Gray for the U.K.'s The Telegraph:
A team of astronauts are being trained to land on an asteroid to explore its surface, search for minerals and even learn the skills they may need to destroy it should one pose a threat to the Earth.
NASA, the U.S. space agency, is planning to send humans far further than they have ever been before to by making contact with an asteroid up to three million miles away by the end of the next decade.
The moon is the furthest humanity has reached out from the Earth, and its an easier target than an asteroid as the satellite orbits the Earth. Getting there and back is an easier equation to solve than trying to hit a target millions of miles away. Something like an asteroid poses its own unique set of issues, especially if you want to get back.
That said, next month NASA will prep a team on what to do once they get there, and that training will include everything from performing science experiments to taking samples — again for science, but also to find what kind of valuable minerals are out there.
Astronauts are rigorously trained before any mission. The U.K.'s Major Tim Peake, who was a helicopter test pilot for the British Army before becoming the nation's first official astronaut and will take part in NASA's training, talked with The Telegraph about the unannounced mission:
"With the technology we have available and are developing today, an asteroid mission of up to a year is definitely achievable.
"Asteroids are interesting on a number of different levels. NASA is focused on the science you can achieve as asteroids are essentially a historical record of billions of years of our universe where we can take samples from.
"These objects are also coming extremely close to Earth all the time, but we rarely hear about it. In the last year we had an asteroid come within Earth's geostationary orbit, which is closer than some satellites.
"With enough warning we would probably send a robotic mission to deflect an asteroid, but if something is spotted late and is big enough we might come into Armageddon type scenarios where we may have to look at manned missions to deflect it.
"That is when the skills we are learning about how to work on an asteroid could be useful."
So, asteroid exploration, exploitation and defense, from the sounds of it.
When NASA retired the shuttle fleet, the agency was delivered a new mandate: leave sub-orbit for private spaceflight companies while focusing on manned deep space exploration and robotic missions. We'll have more about this plan later this month when NASA is set to formally reveal its plans for an asteroid landing.
In other NASA news, a three-man crew including two Russians and an American launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz rocket late last night. You can read more about it here.