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Asteroid Missions May Replace Lunar Base Plans 237

Posted by Soulskill
from the take-a-triangular-ship-just-in-case dept.
An anonymous reader alerts us to a story about efforts to modify the United States' space exploration plans to focus on asteroid missions rather than a lunar base. Scientists, astronauts, and former NASA division directors will be meeting next month to develop an alternative to the Bush administration's Vision for Space Exploration. We have previously discussed the possibility of a manned asteroid mission. Quoting: "Numerous planetary managers told Aviation Week & Space Technology they now fear a manned Moon base and even shorter sorties to the Moon will bog down the space program for decades and inhibit, rather than facilitate, manned Mars operations--the ultimate goal of both the Bush and alternative visions. The first lunar sortie would be flown by about 2020 under the Bush plan. If alternative-vision planners have their way, the mission could instead be flown to an asteroid in about 2025."
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Asteroid Missions May Replace Lunar Base Plans

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  • So... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jellomizer (103300) * on Sunday January 20, 2008 @09:25AM (#22116452)
    Just because he was an unpopular president everything he did is wrong, and needs to be reverted, once he leaves... Come on get realistic Presidents are people like you and me they make mistakes sometimes huge ones but they are not wrong all the time... I would like to see more work on the moon vs. asteroids. Asteroids seem much riskier without the benefit yet. The moon on the other hand is fairly stable and we could really work out the kinks in exportation.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:3, Insightful)

    by damburger (981828) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @09:45AM (#22116498)
    There is still plenty we do not know about the moon, seeing as we have sent precisely one real scientist there in all of human history. The moon is also a far more practical setting for a manned base, which is ultimately the point of expanding into space. But, hey, like I said I'm sure you can tag along with the Chinese or Russians.
  • Re:So it begins (Score:4, Insightful)

    by johannesg (664142) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:04AM (#22116570)
    Given how there was no funding to begin with, it is hard to see how it can be cut back. However, the resulting confusion is indeed highly likely to get rid of both missions at the same time.
  • Re:A little sad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by damburger (981828) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:06AM (#22116578)
    Why is there no scientific value in sending people to the moon? Its not like NASA explored the whole thing in the 1960s. We don't know much at all about the levels of water and helium-3 in the surface, both of which are important. Furthermore, seeing as the Earth and Moon seemed to have formed at the same time, investigating the moon can tell us more about the Earth. There is loads more to learn.
  • by Z00L00K (682162) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:09AM (#22116592) Homepage
    The difference is that a manned moon-base is relatively resource-demanding while asteroid missions not necessarily has to be manned. It can be more of a problem doing a manned asteroid mission than a robotic one.

    The only problem with an unmanned asteroid mission is that it may require some human decision from time to time - but normally there is no problem with time delays there. Not much that's in a hurry on an asteroid unless it's heading for Earth. Just put the robot to sleep for a while and recharge the batteries. Keep in mind that there may have to be different robots there compared to the robots we have on Mars.

    The thing that's more interesting with a permanent moon-base is that there is a possibility that a lot of the material found on the moon can be used as construction material. It will require a processing plant - and it can't be used for everything, but it's there. Much of the soil is composed from oxides - which means that you can extract oxygen. Allocation of area for growth is no big problem either. The catch is that all this may have a high cost. But what is the cost when the Chinese decides that it's their turn to go to the moon?

  • Re:So... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by vtcodger (957785) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:18AM (#22116606)
    ***Come on get realistic Presidents are people like you and me they make mistakes sometimes huge ones but they are not wrong all the time...***

    Perfection is difficult. But George W Bush is as close to a perfect fool as I want to see in my lifetime in charge of any major country.

    In any case, the reason for going to the Asteroids instead of the Moon is that it is a probably a more effective way to spend money. We've been to the moon. What major unanswered questions do we have about the moon? None that I know of. Colonization? We aren't going to build a viable lunar colony with our current technology base any more than the Vikings were going to use their base in Labrador to colonize Malibu Beach The Asteroids surely have a higher payoff scientifically and possibly financially as well.

    Signs of intelligent life at NASA after all these decades. Didn't see THAT coming.

  • Re:A little sad (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dr.Enormous (651727) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:19AM (#22116612)
    Because we can send robots there for half the cost, and the space saved in fuel, life support, and whatnot will allow them to carry much more in the way of instrumentation and tools.
  • Re:A little sad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cnettel (836611) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:33AM (#22116656)
    Don't you think that the far longer distance to the asteroids make the overhead of a human presence on the trip there somewhat bigger, compared to a trip to the moon? A continuous presence on the moon would be realistic before 2030, reusing the same equipment with different crews. I fail to see that on the asteroids. Heck, for the moon it would even be possible to get down to Earth in a somewhat conceivable manner in a medical emergency, not so in the asteroid belt. (Ok, we can choose to land on one that passes nearby, but then it's a very limited time window anyway. It's a series of short excursions, not a permanent project.)
  • What's the Goal? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spaceman375 (780812) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @10:52AM (#22116718)
    All these people seem to think that getting to Mars is the ultimate goal, that gathering scientific data is the point, and we've been to the moon already. This is starry eyed gee-whiz thinking. The quote at the end of TFA explains the REAL goal - we need a permanent colony somewhere other than here. Yes the Moon is a harsher environment, but the cost in time and money to put a colony on Mars is so much higher than putting one on the Moon that it just doesn't make sense. Sure, while we're there we should do some science, but getting people to live there will produce more sustained value than dozens of brief scientific visits to places with only scientific interest. Look at how they consider the Moon now - if a place is only worth visiting a couple of times at most, we're going to run out of places to go pretty quick. A colony would provide LOTS of incentive for private company participation. Building an Earth/Moon ferry service is feasible in 50 years - no private company is going to invest in one to Mars anytime soon.
    I want a Moonbase!
  • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by luna69 (529007) * on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:30AM (#22116890)
    The Moon is a white elephant.

    The Moon will certainly be useful someday - for mining, for energy collection, for tourism, for pure science...but it isn't a useful stop on the way to Mars, nor has it ever been. We've looked at the Moon in recent years for two reasons, both interrelated: first, the big contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, etc.) figure they can bleed us for the Moon and increase their profits before ever beginning the Mars project. Second, the U.S., and humanity in general, suffers from acute myopia and timidity.

    We can go to Mars, and we can start NOW. No need for holes on the Moon into which we pour money...and more importantly, time.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:48AM (#22116996)

    Landing from lunar orbit and takeoff to orbit each require delta Vs greater than 2000 m/sec. Entering and leaving lunar orbit takes even more. Asteroids require earth escape, but that is only slightly more than reaching the moon's high altitude (400,000 km). The velocity change required to rendezvous with the asteroid could be minimized by careful choice of asteroid and launch window.

    Slightly greater than 2000 m/sec to land/take-off from lunar orbit. Rather less then 2000 m/sec to enter/leave lunar orbit. Closer to 700 m/sec than to 2000 m/sec.

    Velocity change required to rendezvous with an asteroid is rather higher than you seem to think, though. Unless we find an asteroid in very close to the same orbital plane as Earth, with perihelion and aphelion within the range of Mars' and Venus' orbits. Even under ideal conditions, we're talking more than a trip to the moon, and a much longer voyage. Keep in mind also that we prefer free-return trajectories, which take even more delta-V - especially for something like a near-Earth asteroid....

    One of the lovely things about doing our learning on the moon is that we're only three days away from Earth in case something goes south. Would be really embarrassing to find that we ran out of vitamin C three months into a 16 month mission, with no way to shorten it (a free return trajectory for a hypothetical asteroid mission will take about 18 months to return to Earth in case the "free return part has to be invoked. At least).

  • by mbone (558574) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:58AM (#22117050)
    I have felt this for a long time.

    A number of Earth-crossing asteroids are easier to get to, energetically, than the Moon. (Apollo could certainly have
    reached some asteroids, which was pointed out at the time, and a lot more Earth-crossing asteroids are known now.) The trip times tend to be long,
    so you need to be prepared for long duration flights (which is not that different from being prepared for long duration lunar visits, and is also
    true of any trip to Mars). And, you don't need anything like a lunar module. (With most asteroids, and certainly all of the Earth crossing ones, you will "dock" with
    them more than "land" on them, the gravity is that week.) The weight saved from the lunar module can be used for provisions instead.

    There is plenty of science to do, and if we are ever going to economically exploit the materials in space, we are much more likely to
    do it with asteroids than with either the Moon or Mars.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gammaraybuster (913268) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @12:09PM (#22117108)

    Asteroids ... have considerably more scientific value than the moon.

    That's debatable, but to the extent it is true we should be sending unmanned probes to the asteroids, not expensive manned missions. Besides, manned missions really don't have much to do with science.

    The moon is much more like Mars than any little near Earth asteroid. Before we go to Mars we'll need to learn how to live there for several months, and constructing a base on the moon is a great way to gain that knowledge. It's far enough away and a similar enough environment to require similar engineering solutions, but near enough to rescue the mission if something goes awry. Also, landing on and lifting off the Moon is just what we want to be good at for a manned Mars mission. The moon's gravity is about 1/6 earth, Mar's is about 1/4. The main difference is Mar's atmosphere, but we won't learn anything about landing on an atmosphered planet from an asteroid mission.

    Personally I think going to Mars is going to be a hell of a tough prospect, much harder than most people think. I can imagine a future where the first successful two-year mission barely survives the ordeal and the bleakness and suffering of the explorers turns everyone off the whole idea. Probably what we need is a faster, better, cheaper propulsion system to get us there in a month or less.

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by p3d0 (42270) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @12:25PM (#22117222)

    Asteroids seem much riskier without the benefit yet. The moon on the other hand is fairly stable and we could really work out the kinks in exportation.
    Thanks for weighing in with that informed opinion.
  • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Reality Master 101 (179095) <RealityMaster101.gmail@com> on Sunday January 20, 2008 @12:29PM (#22117250) Homepage Journal

    George W Bush is many things. But he is not a fool.

    I agree with you, I don't think he's a fool, or that he's stupid. I've also defended his verbal gaffs, similar to the way you do -- I don't care about speechmaking, I care about results.

    So, speaking as a Republican, what the hell *is* wrong with him? Is it arrogance? Hubris? I really can't defend much of what he's done. He's allowed spending like a drunken sailor. The war has been so totally mismanaged I literally can't believe it ("Wait, you mean we weren't keeping people there after we cleared out the town ALL ALONG?? WTF?") The idiotic waffling on what torture is or isn't. That supreme court nomination that even Rush Limbaugh couldn't stomach. The arrogant dismissals of Europe.

    Again, I don't think he's a fool -- that's media created. But based on results, you can't conclude that he's anything but stunningly incompetent, and I don't understand where it all went so wrong. He had such grand opportunities at the start of his presidency, and it was all pissed away.

  • Re:A great idea (Score:2, Insightful)

    by s2cuts (1223682) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @12:32PM (#22117262)

    ...I honestly do not care about scientific value at this point? I want to see a moonbase. I want proof it can be done on a small planetary scale. I want to see new settlements of humans off this planet, even if only to our nearest satellite. I want to see the whole thing shown to be do'able, not for study's sake, but because it should be being done. I want to see a practical application and a first step to living elsewhere...

    Cheers,
    Ian
    How many times did you say 'I want...' in your post? Honestly, if this doesn't sum up the American mentality, I don't know what does. Me me me me me me me me me... Try opening your mind long enough to realize that A, the world doesn't revolve around you, and B, you should leave the decisions on scientific research to scientists. What makes you think that we need 'proof' of something that man will undoubtedly do well after you're dead? Why spend a huge amount of resources to make you happy, when all we need is scientific progress in the areas that make the most sense today. Namely, sending out robotic explorers in our place. People have to learn to accept the FACT that we will not know everything, discover everything, and conquer everything in their life times.
  • doable; cold war (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @01:16PM (#22117570) Homepage

    One big advantage of a crewed mission to a near-earth asteroid over a crewed mission to Mars is that we simply don't have the technology to get to Mars. A transfer orbit to Mars takes 1.4 years (total round-trip time). (This is simply the period of a body in a Keplerian orbit that's tangent to the Earth's orbit at perihelion and tangent to Mars's orbit at aphelion. A spaceship isn't like a car, which takes less time to get there if you drive faster. A spaceship only thrusts with its engines in order to change its orbit.) The big unsolved scientific and engineering problem is how to keep a crew of human beings from getting exposed to unacceptable doses of radiation when they're in Earth-Mars orbital space for that long. The radiation intensity from galactic cosmic rays [wikipedia.org] is much, much higher out there than it is in Earth orbit. Feasible amounts of shielding actually make the problem worse rather than better, because of secondary radiation. According to this article [space.com], the duration of a mission to a near-earth asteroid could be 60-90 days, so it avoids this very tough, unsolved problem. There are many other aspects of a near-earth asteroid mission that are also a heck of a lot easier than a Mars mission. You don't have to land in a deep gravity well and then take off again, for one thing. If you look at the history of uncrewed Mars missions, it's pretty damn scary -- the success rate is very low, and that's for missions that don't have to take off and return to Earth, and don't have to provide life support.

    The big question in my mind is what is the rational justification for government-funded crewed spaceflight at this point. There's no scientific justification; uncrewed probes give more bang for the buck. The shuttle's only mission is to go to the ISS, and the ISS's only mission is to give the shuttle somewhere to go. Thirty or forty years ago, this was all basically cold war propaganda stuff. It seems to me that the U.S. is having a hard time dealing with an unanticipated outbreak of peace. The rational thing to do would have been to continue harvesting the peace dividend, start ramping down our foreign military commitments, and let both crewed and uncrewed space exploration make the transition to the private sector. Instead we've been blundering around like idiots with our ridiculously large military, and in terms of space exploration we've been choking the scientifically productive uncrewed program by diverting the available money into extremely expensive projects like the ISS that have no rational justification.

  • The End of Spirit (Score:3, Insightful)

    by transami (202700) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @02:02PM (#22117906) Homepage
    I can't believe what I am reading. First of all. This was a setup from the get go. There never was any intention by Bush to put a base on the moon. This was a rouge to divert funding from NASA. The same tactic has been used before. So this isn't really news, it's been in the cards all along. After awhile they'll cut the Astroid missions back too.

    Now that fact that so many posters think this is a good idea, is terribly disheartening. If these posts are for real (and not more b.s. from the propaganda machines that now dominate our media), then it means America has lost it's Spirit. We no longer have a can-do attitude. We no longer care about going beyond ourself and pushing frontiers. We no longer see our ourselves as capable of achieving great things. In short we no longer Dream. And that...more than anything else will be our doom.
  • Re:A great idea (Score:3, Insightful)

    by khallow (566160) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @02:32PM (#22118190)

    How many times did you say 'I want...' in your post? Honestly, if this doesn't sum up the American mentality, I don't know what does. Me me me me me me me me me... Try opening your mind long enough to realize that A, the world doesn't revolve around you, and B, you should leave the decisions on scientific research to scientists. What makes you think that we need 'proof' of something that man will undoubtedly do well after you're dead? Why spend a huge amount of resources to make you happy, when all we need is scientific progress in the areas that make the most sense today. Namely, sending out robotic explorers in our place. People have to learn to accept the FACT that we will not know everything, discover everything, and conquer everything in their life times.
    The only problem I see here is that he seems to be wanting to do this with Other Peoples' Money. We shouldn't leave important decisions to other people whether they be scientists or some other profession. If the science truly is important, they'll be able to justify it. If it's not, they'll just have to whine about how underfunded they are. Finally, there's no reason to use our limitations as an excuse for procrastination.
  • V is for Vision (Score:4, Insightful)

    by code_rage (130128) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @02:39PM (#22118258)
    The Moon-Mars plan is referred to as the "Vision for Space Exploration."

    What exactly is the vision? The founding document [nasa.gov] [large PDF warning] for the "VSE" lists goals and strategies, but no vision of what the goals and strategies are meant to accomplish. A vision involving the Moon could be "create a new civilization on the Moon that might do for the U.S. what the New World colonies did for the Old World." (you can snicker but that is an example).

    "Go to the Moon and Mars" is not a vision. It's an strategy.
    "Build launchers and spacecraft based on current infrastructure & technology" is an implementation of that strategy.

    Again... what is the vision?

  • by hemo_jr (1122113) on Sunday January 20, 2008 @11:22PM (#22122660)
    This sounds very much like the argument used to bypass building a space station before going to the Moon in the 1960's. We got to the moon in a decade, but we did this by over-reaching ourselves -- all the infrastructure was stuck on Earth. We have spend much of the succeeding decades back-filling what we should have built as a part of going to the Moon. Going to Mars without first establishing a permanent presence on the Moon means that all the resources for the spacecraft to send a manned expedition to Mars will come from Earth and have to be pushed up a daunting gravitational well. This is like spitting into a desert sand storm to fill a cup. What we need is a considered bootstrapping effort -- something we have never done when it comes to space exploration. As part of this effort, we should establish a Lunar presence, develop an industrial base of mining and manufacturing. There is nearly a planet full resources already in Earth orbit. Besides providing, at least partially, for the construction of interplanetary spacecraft, a Lunar industrial base will give us resources for things like solar power satellites, a geosych anchoring mass for a space elevator et al. What asteroids, or rather cometary objects could give us that the Moon may have difficulty providing is volatiles. And I am all for this. But as long as one has to pay the price to get everything needed from Earth to orbit first, space exploration is a game overly restricted by those costs.
  • Re:So... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jandersen (462034) on Monday January 21, 2008 @06:12AM (#22124774)
    You don't think he is a fool, or stupid? I do.

    This has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to with knowing about your limits - and caring about them. He has, despite knowing better, done a large number of things that he shouldn't have; I refuse to believe that he didn't know that he was lying about Iraq, that he didn't know that he alienated all America's allies etc.

    The only hypothesis I can offer for his stupidity is "blind faith": the kind of religious faith that says "close your eyes and ears to reality, only your religion matters". He is stupid because he has made conscious choice to be so, for religious reasons. Not that the Bible (or the Qur'an for that matter) dictates this, but fundamentalists wants to be better than God's word - and that is truly hubris.

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