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.”
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.