Barack Obama should rethink America’s goals in space and shoot for something a little more inspirational than a lump of rock, argues our space columnist.

When Barack Obama strode on to stage to accept his second term of office, he did just enough to inspire hope that the country’s space programme could regain some of its former glory. Amidst a speech about the country’s progress and future, he presented a vision of a country “that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation”.

Could that mean that Nasa is once again going to launch a programme of exploration as inspiring and bold as the Apollo missions? Perhaps that would be reading too much into it. However, there are already rumours circulating that Nasa is about to unveil a new manned mission to the Moon, although not everyone buys into the exact details.  

Whatever the truth, I hope that Nasa is aiming big, because its current ambitions are – by its own scientists admissions – somewhat lacking. Although we now have the capability to return humans to the Moon, and travel beyond with manned missions to Mars, the world’s leading space-faring nation has another destination in its sights: an asteroid. A small lump of rock.

It’s as if Columbus took one look at the Atlantic Ocean and settled instead for a couple of weeks in Gibraltar. Nevertheless, this is Nasa’s goal – set by the President in 2010 – a human mission to an asteroid. This is not a goal in the Kennedy mould but a ‘redefined’ mission. The original objective was indeed to go back to the Moon and then head for Mars. Nasa even started to build the spacecraft, Orion. But with inadequate funds, and a lack of political support, the goal became increasingly unreachable. So the spacecraft remained but the destination changed. But it’s not too late to reverse that decision when even people in Nasa suspect that the project, in its current form, is not as well thought out as it could be.

“I don’t know if Nasa has a clear plan,” David Morrison, senior scientist at Nasa’s Astrobiology Institute, tells me. “The President said that our goal was a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 and that is becoming less and less likely, not because we lack the rockets, not because the astronauts don’t want to go but we simply don’t have enough suitable targets.”

Optimistic deadline

This is a fundamental problem. We know there are plenty of asteroids out there. We just don’t know exactly where. “We live in a kind of cosmic shooting gallery,” says Morrison, “we know these guys are out there and eventually they’ll hit us.”

“Astronomers do their work statistically, so once you discover a few of these Near Earth Asteroids, which we have done, you can get a pretty good idea of the overall distribution and the numbers,” Morrison explains. “But if you want to targets for human missions, you can’t just do it statistically, you have to find each individual object one at a time and calculate its orbit. So we understand the general issue of how many are out there but we haven’t catalogued the individuals.”

Fortunately, a group of concerned citizens should be able to help Nasa out. The B612 Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation set up to launch an unmanned mission to search for asteroids. Its primary purpose is to identify any asteroids that might, one day, pose a risk to the Earth so we can do something about them. The secret is to be able to map our cosmic neighbourhood with sufficient accuracy that we can predict where asteroids will be well into the future. The idea is that any asteroids that might get in our way can be gently nudged off course. The B612 Foundation could, ultimately, save the Earth.

If all goes to plan, the Foundation’s Sentinel mission is due to be launched in 2018 and it will take at least five and half years to map the position of asteroids. So even with the most optimistic projections, we won’t know exactly where the asteroids are until 2024. That 2025 deadline for launching a mission to an asteroid doesn’t seem particularly realistic.

Let’s assume it does all go ahead. It’s 2025, the Orion capsule is ready to fly, the astronauts are trained and the destination determined. We gather round our screens to watch the dramatic launch of the first American astronauts to leave Earth orbit in more than half a century. The massive rocket disappears into the sky and heads off into deep space, an asteroid in its sights. Days or weeks pass until they arrive. Some of us follow every moment; most lose interest. Then it arrives.

So what will the astronauts do when they get there?

“They aren’t going to land on the surface, there’re going to be no footprints – the gravity is very low”, says Morrison. “They’re going to touch it? What does that mean? They take their glove off and touch it with their hands? No, that would not be a good idea. Touch it with their glove? Touch it with a pole?” he asks rhetorically. “Scientifically it would be very interesting to find out more about these objects but what the human interaction is, is a little unclear to me.” And me. No-one seems to have tackled the big question: why go to an asteroid?

The reasons for any space exploration are often nebulous. You could argue that the Moon might have mineral potential or be an excellent place to site an observatory. That Mars conceals scientific secrets that can only be unravelled by astronauts or is the first step to human colonies on other worlds.

Fundamentally though any manned mission beyond the Earth is about human endeavour and our spirit of exploration. It’s what humans do – from the dawn of time, we’ve always wanted to know what’s over the hill. If we’re to justify the vast expense of these missions they have to tap into that aspect of human nature – like the pioneering flights of Apollo, they need to inspire.

There are good reasons to map asteroids, to track them, even mine them. But this can be done by robotic missions, and the mining by private companies. Surely the agency that put man on the Moon can aim higher. With the US Presidential election out of the way, now would be a good time for President Obama to shelve the asteroid mission, before it’s too late, and set Nasa a target that is truly inspirational.

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