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NASA Space Science

The Best Near-Term Future of Space Exploration? 444

An anonymous reader writes "Much fanfare has been made about manned missions to moons and planets, but little has been done about travel to the asteroids — until now. NASA is working on plans for a trip to the asteroids by 2025. This type of mission has great potential for positive economic return based on the fact that no effort has to be spent on getting in and out of a distant planet's gravity well. Yes, we should go to the planets, but we should master mining the asteroid belt for resources first because it is easiest. What do you think?"
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The Best Near-Term Future of Space Exploration?

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  • What do I think? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:13PM (#33421670)
    If your goal is to set up self-sufficient colonies independent of Earth, the asteroid belt is the best place to do it. But I don't think it will be economically rewarding without our lifetime.
  • by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:18PM (#33421716) Homepage Journal

    The concept that space exploration to mine asteroids is easiest is, itself, questionable.

    Each asteroid has a larger chance of inter-asteroid impacts.

    Perhaps a better choice might be one of the moons of Mars, so that we can build a giant space ladder our robot overlords can climb up on the way to invading us?

  • Re:Why mining? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by afidel ( 530433 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:20PM (#33421734)
    Rare earth metals, the easily mined deposits of which our civilization will probably have depleted in the next 50-100 years. Already there are serious concerns about switching to renewable energy sources based on the low availability of certain key resources.
  • Belters! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by arcsimm ( 1084173 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:22PM (#33421748)
    IMO an asteroid mission is far and away the best choice for manned exploration. They have practically nonexistent gravity wells, making exploration relatively cheap, and depending on the target selected, could support making life support volatiles and rocket fuel in-situ. A good-sized nickel-iron NEO, on the other hand, could be an excellent prospecting opportunity -- depending on how big it is, it could supply enough iron to sate Earth's steel demand for a century or more -- or it could be used as a resource cache to bootstrap space-borne manufacturing. Mining space rocks isn't as glamorous as the moon or Mars, but the cost/benefit analysis strongly favors the asteroid.
  • Nuke them (Score:2, Interesting)

    by moozoo ( 1308855 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:23PM (#33421768)
    They should visit a number of different types of asteroids and nuke them to see the effect. Its really important knowing what will and won't work in protecting the planet from an asteroid impact. We have zero experience in how effective nuclear weapons are in deflecting or distinguishing asteroids. I don't think we want to be doing this when threatened by a large asteroid collision.
  • Re:Why mining? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by moozoo ( 1308855 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:25PM (#33421780)
    Nothing... They would use the materials to build space habitats...
  • Re:Why mining? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:27PM (#33421810)
    I think you can go down pretty damn deep before "easily mined" from asteroids becomes more cost effective than "easily mined" here on Earth! You need to mine the asteroids for resources to use in orbit, not to send back to Earth.
  • by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:30PM (#33421834) Homepage Journal
    Not sure if mining the asteroids will have an economical impact down here on earth. But what should be explored there is what we can do. Can we live there? Can we make self-sustained enough stations with materials found there? What about new ships or propulsing fuel? Good part of the cost and ecological impact of space exploration is actually getting into space, leaving planet gravity well. But if most of the needed resources are already out and we can have enough people there in a semi permanent basis, we can start thinking in more advanced space exploration and colonization, maybe getting cheap enough resources (think for what was used the space station in the movie Moon). Of course that are several practical problems, but could we solve them?
  • A Known Quantity. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Banichi ( 1255242 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:31PM (#33421836)

    An approach to space exploitation (and thus exploration) has been known for decades.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_High_Frontier:_Human_Colonies_in_Space [wikipedia.org]

    Gerard K. O'Neill wrote this book decades ago, and I see no reason to deviate from the basic plan described within.

  • Re:Why mining? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:43PM (#33421938)

    Mining stuff here on Earth makes a mess of our environment (more so in some places than others; here in the Arizona desert, it pretty much just results in an ugly pit, but in West Virginia, mountaintop-removal mining causes all kinds of ecological problems).

    Now people (like China) are already talking about mining the sea floor, because we've depleted everywhere else. The sea floor is a much harsher environment than space for humans; in space, you just need to design a vessel that can contain a measly 1 atmosphere of pressure. Sending people underwater is much harder since you have to design your craft to keep hundreds or thousands of atmospheres of pressure out. Of course, you can do a lot of work with ROVs, but there's still a lot of technical challenges there because of the depth, and the presence of (very high-pressure) water all around. Space is relatively easy to work in. The only problem is getting out of our gravity well.

    Digging deeper into the crust isn't exactly safe, either. Ask the miners in Chile who are still trapped underground.

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:45PM (#33421948)
    Why manned? Sending robots on a one-way mission is always going to be an order of magnitude cheaper than sending humans and safely bringing them back home. However, sending humans on a one-way mission may be cheaper still!
  • Re:What do I think? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:46PM (#33421962)

    "But I don't think it will be economically rewarding without our lifetime."

    Of course not, given the silly desire to send humans early in the game.

    There isn't a good reason not to send forty or fifty or whatever remote-manned missions first. Humans would be along for the ride merely for the adventure, which is nice but can wait. If we want to mine space, don't increase the cost by having miners onsite.

    The dumbest idea in the movie Total Recall was that there would be any need for human miners on Mars in the first place.

  • What happened? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BigSes ( 1623417 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @08:49PM (#33421990)
    Excuse the vent, but NASA has become lame as hell nowadays. What happened? From the space race in the 60s forward 50 years to now, isn't anyone else disappointed? I'm 31, and I was so excited growing up in the 80s, I couldn't imagine what I was going to see. Now, it seems to have all slowed to a crawl. Sure, Hubble gave us some amazing photos and scientific data, but where have the grand leaps and bounds in technology and sheer drive to explore been? Now, we have Obama hamstringing the space program as well, cancelling programs left and right. 2025? Ill be nearly 50, and I'd bet yet to see a man on Mars. I guess I assumed it would happen in my lifetime, and much earlier, even by 2010 at the rate things seemed to have been advancing. The idea of this is cool and all, but I really hoped we would push the envelope a bit harder, like the good old days. Sorry, I guess I'm just underwhelmed and disappointed.
  • Re:What happened? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:07PM (#33422110)

    Nixon wanted to get out of manned spaceflight. Follow-on Apollo's were canceled, the Venus fly-by was canceled (you can see the crew module at the Air and Space Museum, except it's labeled "Skylab"), the Saturn V was thrown away, the Germans and Americans from the 1930's were all retired, from Von Braun on down, the middle-engineering of Apollo was all fired (I remember PhDs pumping gas in Florida), and what was left was the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats can run things, but they won't give you grand leaps.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:14PM (#33422156)

    And what happens when the orbit gets miscalculated and the rock re-enters? Our very own meteorite impact, which will wipe out New York.

  • Re:Why mining? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @09:30PM (#33422280) Journal
    Why do you think metals? The best substance you could pull from an asteroid would be ice. Ice can be converted into fuel. Ice can be converted into oxygen. Ice can be converted into water. A good icy asteroid can supply three of the four main consumables of space exploration.
  • Why manned? Sending robots on a one-way mission is always going to be an order of magnitude cheaper than sending humans and safely bringing them back home. However, sending humans on a one-way mission may be cheaper still!

    I simply don't understand how anyone human can have this attitude. I'm all for doing most exploration via robitic means, but for man never to go to new areas himself? Further, if we don't do it, someone else... China, India, Russia, someone... is going to go. They're certainly not going to ignore the human factor.

    Exploration isn't just about science, and never has been. In fact, even with the advent of the scientific revolution, I'd say science has been at best a minor motivation. Simply getting there is part of what makes us human.

  • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:09PM (#33422516) Journal
    Solar energy is cheap in space. You could make a parabolic dish a mile across out of mylar potato chip bags and bendy straws, using the focussed rays to drive a steam driven electric generator. Delta-V is the costly item, and that means propellant, and once you find a big block of ice floating around somewhere, you've got your propellant.
  • by JoeSilva ( 215173 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:29PM (#33422648)

    I think the mining idea misses the point. This NASA plan is all about gaining experience surviving outside of low earth orbit.

    1: Surviving without the massive radiation shield that earth's magnetosphere provides.
    2: Surviving without an option for quick Earth return.
    3: Surviving without near instantaneous communication with ground control, Major Tom.
    4: Surviving extended exposure to zero-g (muscle and bone loss)

    Well #4 has already been worked out a lot at ISS though the amount of exercise needed is significant (less mission time) and not perfect (still need to get strong again when back on earth).
    Shall we start debating the need for artificial G via rotation?

    Also #2 has been somewhat worked over with ISS, specifically the need for lot's of spare parts, redundant systems, and design for easy repair. What's not so well covered is, wetware repair. MedBay anyone? Is there a doctor in the house?

  • It could be fine... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jg ( 16880 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:44PM (#33422754) Homepage

    A very long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (MIT, mid 1970's, when I was an undergraduate and a member of MIT"s Planetary Astronomy Laboratory of that era), I remember having conversations with Mike Gaffey about asteroid mining. I see a reference to Technology Review on asteroid mining from Mike in 1977, so I think this got all published; I don't have any TR's of that era around to refresh my memory.

    I remember one interesting scheme, where you might take a m-type metallic asteroid (which is mostly iron, nickel, and other useful metals) to earth orbit, by any of a number of propulsion schemes (solar sail, ion engine, or the like). It would probably take a number of years to move it from the asteroid belt to earth orbit. Then foam the asteroid (use solar mirrors to make it molten, and inject gas), and shape it into a lifting body. Then you would fly it into the earth's atmosphere, and land it in the ocean outside any port you would care to deliver it to. The point of foaming it was to reduce its density so that it would reenter the earth's atmosphere without much heating and ablation (we don't want to dump lots of metal into the earth's upper atmosphere), and float when you landed it.

    Then you take a tug boat and pull it to a dock, and you have however many kilotons of metal you like. And without the huge energy cost of mining and environmental problems on earth.

    As I remember, all the physics work (without having to invent fundamental new technologies), and there are lots of metallic asteroids. Now we just have to figure out how to actually do it. And it is way, way easier to deal with getting to and from the asteroids than the moon or any planet.
                                                                            - Jim

  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:46PM (#33422766)

    This type of mission has great potential for positive economic return based on the fact that no effort has to be spent on getting in and out of a distant planet's gravity well.

    Someone is forgetting that one has to get in/out of EARTH's gravity well which is the biggest one outside of the gas giants. Then you have to actually mine whatever it is (which we lack the technology to do) in deep space and safely bring it back intact. What are you going to mine in any serious quantity that you can safely return to earth without the item either burning up in the atmosphere or turning the item being returned into a weapon. (Remember that any significant fraction of an asteroid makes a heck of a divot when it hits the earth at high speed.) I can't imaging there are a lot of asteroids composed of precious metals floating around. Maybe there is an asteroid filled with inkjet refills or human blood?

    Seriously, even ignoring the technical issues (which are huge) I haven't heard anything relating to mining asteroids that remotely makes economic sense. What could we possibly mine on an asteroid that could be worth the enormous cost of retrieving it from the asteroid belt? We only have a vague idea of what many of these things are composed of and what we do know isn't anything terribly rare here on Earth. The idea of mining asteroids is a romantic and cool idea but we would have to be SERIOUSLY in desperate need of something to make the economics of asteroid mining make any kind of sense.

    Scientific research? Hell yeah. Economic return? Not likely in this century.

  • Re:What do I think? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by c6gunner ( 950153 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @10:46PM (#33422768)

    The dumbest idea in the movie Total Recall was that there would be any need for human miners on Mars in the first place.

    Yeah, the giant alien-built pyramid which magically gave mars an atmosphere ... that was WAY more realistic!

    The plausibility of the scenario you complain about hinges entirely on the cost of transport at the time that the colonies were established. Given that middle-class people in the Total Recall Universe can apparently afford vacation travel to Mars, I'd say the idea of human miners is completely realistic. With the availability of such cheap travel, and the abundance of poverty on Earth, it makes perfect sense to ship off your poor and your criminals to slave away in martian mines, instead of sending billion-dollar machines.

  • Re:What happened? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Zak3056 ( 69287 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:08PM (#33422898) Journal

    What happened?

    My opinion is that, as a culture, we've become too risk averse. The requirement to (and expense of) engineering every possible conceivable thing that could go wrong out of, well, everything, is destroying the possibility of achieving anything.

  • by barfy ( 256323 ) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:19PM (#33422968)

    Ok, the real deal here is manufacturing facilities, not mining per se. There are TONS of asteroids all over the moon, that could be used for early mining to support manufacturing on the moon.

    And really the best way to "mine" the asteroid belt as one said in reference to hauling stuff, would be fishing for stones, and then hauling them back to the moon. Thrown down where it would be safe enough, but far enough from the manufacturing facility, and then hauled mined and manufactured back there.

    THis would of course be multiphase and requires just tons of energy. Nuclear batteries are not likely to create enough energy, and other forms of nuclear energy require ALOT of water. So we have a basic problem in creating MINING and MANUFACTURING levels of energy. Energy to create steel for instance. Without water or internal combustion engines, it becomes tough to make that amount of energy.

  • by LaissezFaire ( 582924 ) on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @11:38AM (#33425878) Journal
    The asteroid mission is mandated to use nuclear power to travel in space (not launch). I like nuclear power, but there are some hard technical leaps to get through for that to be a viable propulsion source. Granted, it's more likely to work than getting a usable electric powered car in the US, but the odd combination of setting a destination objective (e.g. asteroids) with a mandatory technology (e.g. must run on cheese) shows novice planning work.

    What was cancelled to make room for the asteroid mission was the Mars mission. Why? Well, the administration says that the asteroids are closer. I Am Not a Scientist (IANAS), but through careful and methodical research I've determined that the moon is still closer. And it likely has minerals, has some gravity to help with biological issues like muscle atrophy, etc. Oh, and we've already gone there with 1960's technology, so it's a pretty close bet we could do it again.

    The current big problem is getting mass to (or out of) orbit. If you want to pretend the government's best role is things like infrastructure, they should fund private companies to develop heavy rockets for lift, space factories for building space-launched rockets, or a space habitat that isn't in low Earth orbit.

    My suspicion is the asteroid mission was selected because failure (or future cancellation) will be hardly noticed. However, everyone would certainly notice a habitat on Mars or the moon that we no longer use. The saying goes "If we can send a man to the moon" not "If we can rendezvous with an asteroid!"

    Finally, there are no intermediate goals in the strategy. Just "get there." What we don't need is NASA to wander about for years developing "stuff" with no progress. We've already seen that for too many decades.

  • lasso an asteroid (Score:3, Interesting)

    by whitroth ( 9367 ) <whitroth&5-cent,us> on Tuesday August 31, 2010 @12:31PM (#33426626) Homepage

    There are a lot of near-Earth asteroid, like Toutitis a few years ago. Send a mission to one, and alter its orbit so that it enters near-Earth orbit, say at geosync. Then we'd have a *real* space station, once we dug into it, and used it for raw materials, one that would have real protection against solar flares, and that could be used to base true deep-space ships (that only go from orbit to orbit) to the Moon, Mars and beyond. This would make interplanetary travel for humans far cheaper.

    For that matter, we could use nuclear (steam) rockets from there, which would make trips a lot faster.


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