Asteroid Missions

Are they really harder than landing on Mars?

Sorry, but with all respect, that’s nuts. We know all we need to know about asteroids to plan a mission to them, including the space radiation environment. All you need to do is pick one. And landing on Mars is hard.

That’s not to say that I think that NASA should be doing an asteroid mission, of course. And especially it shouldn’t as long as it continues to spread the nonsense that it needs the SLS/Orion for it.

[Update a while later]

I think that this is mostly FUD from people who don’t want to do an asteroid mission.

22 thoughts on “Asteroid Missions

  1. Edward Wright

    Landing on Mars is hard, but landing on Mars *and* returning to Earth is even harder. It would be easier to send astronauts on a one-way mission with enough supplies to live out their natural lives than to do a round-trip mission — and *much* more cost-effective. NASA knows that. Such missions have been discussed within the astronaut office. But no politician would ever sign off on the idea.

  2. Tom Hill

    Saw this yesterday. Here’s a comment I made elsewhere:

    In my opinion, the article (and perhaps the NRC report it’s based on) is talking around a basic fact. We normally don’t discover asteroids until they’re relatively close to Earth and the geometry is good (note the ‘pulses’ of asteroid discoveries in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqbNTlc1F2k). An asteroid that’s ‘easy’ to get to from Earth makes close approaches in times separated by years (think 7-10 or more) because it’s their slow speed relative to Earth that makes them a good target, and then it takes a long time for them to come around again. The period between visits for Apophis is 7 years, and it flys by too fast for an ‘easy’ mission. With NASA setting criteria that an asteroid needs to be characterized by uncrewed spacecraft before a mission, they’re building in potentially two synodic periods (the time between launch opportunities) for any mission: discovery happens the first time the asteroid approaches, characterization happens the second time, and the human mission happens third.

    A way to cut one synodic period from the wait time would be to have a spacecraft ready for launch to an asteroid right after discovery. Then the human mission would happen the next time the asteroid comes around.

    A way to make the whole thing more likely would be to have a human mission ready to launch to an asteroid right after discovery. Something tells me that safety review on that wouldn’t pass muster today. Of course, the Apollo missions wouldn’t pass the safety reviews of today.

    1. Trent Waddington

      1. learn to change the orbit of asteroids (no humans required in these missions)
      2. change the orbit of an appropriate asteroid to make many close approaches to Earth with a very short period, or anything else you want.
      3. do your pointless “exploration” mission with humans because your political masters want circuses for the masses.

  3. Jonathan Goff

    Rand,

    I think they meant that “planning a mission” to a NEO is harder at this moment than “planning a mission” to Mars. I.e. they’re focused on the PowerPoint engineering phase of the project. Right now they’re right. Because we don’t have any good NEO candidates picked out, it’s easier to do the PowerPoint design of a Mars mission today than a NEO mission. Now actually making that mission happen? That’s I think a different question entirely.

    Remember, the odds of them actually getting a Mars or NEO mission out of the PowerPoint stage is nearly zilch right now, so they’re rightfully focusing on that phase and not the actual, you know, explorationy stuff.

    ~Jon

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      Well, obviously it’s hard to do mission planning without mission requirements. But that’s different than saying it’s harder to do the mission itself. It’s very misleading.

      1. Edward Wright

        In his defense, Gerst did say “in many respects.” That is not the same as saying it’s harder overall. I think his remark was probably taken out of context.

  4. Stan

    I had the same thought when I read that article, but then again it was at space.com, which can be pretty fluffy on content, and has horrible comments. That made the article easy to forget.

    My only ideas supporting the notion that an asteroid mission is more difficult, is the potential for the mars surface to be a safe place for humans to recover from the voyage to mars. I think this will be proven to be the case for the radiation environment, as well as the benefits of being in a gravitational field. However I don’t seethe mars surface being particularly hospitable after those considerations. There is still a need for 24/7 life support 687 days per year. It would be like Felix Baumgartner living in his balloon gondola for the entire time. Stepping outside is no respite from harshness.

    From the standpoint of safety, and “failure is not an option”, the asteroid mission is way more simple. You exchange a longer exposure to radiation and zero G while eliminating the highly formidable perils of EDL of crew, cargo, and life support to the Martian surface. You get to your target, hover around for a while, plant the flag, and fly back home.

    The only asteroid type body I would have any significant interest in seeing them visit would be Phobos, and then only if they plan to stay a while, set up an outpost, and at least explore for the potential for in situ resources for radiation shielding, and possibly water.

    1. ken anthony

      Earth requires 24/7 life support in some times and places. We just don’t notice when it does because humans adapt the environment (rather than themselves to it.) People die, right here one earth, during power outages.

      It is not like Felix. Felix did not have the resources in his gondola to expand his living space. Martians will live in mansions (unless they accept central planning tuna cans.) Why is it so hard for people to free their minds?

      Martians will live a natural life wondering what all the fuss is all about. Stupid earth people will treat martians like Sarah Palin… “Do you read and have TV in Alaska?”

      Getting there is hard. Living there does not have to be.

      1. Stan

        I think it is a wild stretch of wishful thinking to compare places on earth needing “life support” as you define it, to the life support needs of hypothetical settlers on the surface of Mars. Whether its heat or cold, it just boils down to the availability of plentiful energy. That is an easy problem on earth. Mars is difficult.

        The closest successful earth analogy for the first martians is probably a nuclear submarine, which by the way, is a lot like a centrally planned can of tuna. Now lift that nuclear submarine 130,000 ft into earths atmosphere, where its removed from plentiful water for electrolysis, efficient heat exchangers for it’s PWR, and the many friendly ports of call the Navy dudes like so much, and I think you are starting a first order approximation of the first martians.

        As for Felix, he had lots of space on the front porch, and more 02 resources than any martian could dream of. The point of the comparison still stands. His life support limits his mobility in the outside environment, and his potential for disastrous single point failures that could end his life will be shared by the first martians.

        Finally, I do like to free up my mind & be open to wonderous fantasies of living in some mansion in the sky. But then the dust bunnies move into that newly created empty space between my ears, the party starts, & I hear voices. You don’t want me tell you what the voices say…..you may already know.

        1. ken anthony

          Thank you for the thoughtful response Stan. You nailed it. Energy is the first requirement. Why is energy difficult on mars? They have no environmental lawyers which is the only thing keeping energy cost high here on earth. It’s not technology. Without lawyers to stop them, martians will have more energy than they can use, heating their mansions and providing cheap fuel. This isn’t wishful thinking. This is the direct result of free people pursuing happiness. It’s not a technical problem, it’s a societal problem and one of the main reasons why we need a martian frontier (before local governments on earth decide to take control.)

          Using a nuclear submarine as an analogy is exactly what misleads thinking on this subject; although the crew of a sub might make great martians.

          I talk about tuna cans (and you correctly identity subs as a variation) precisely because that is the thought people need to be shaken out of. Mars One has the same problem. Free humans use dirt movers to create their environment because they will own it. Felix can’t add to his red bull habitat. Martians can and will (unless they live in the invisible cage of mindset that says they can’t. That’s why they also need ownership… because it expands the mind.)

          We can have a whole new world, of unimagined value starting with putting a $300m 24 crew ship in earth orbit. Or, $200m for a cheaper 6 crew ship.

          But first, minds must be freed. Most mission plans are like rental cars. It completely changes everything when it’s your own car.

          Another thing that confuses people is immediacy regarding life support. This is why I emphasize we have the EXACT SAME LIFE SUPPORT ISSUES ON EARTH. It just that most of the time there’s less immediate need because oxygen and heat are in tolerable limits. Unless you’re a mountain climber or deep sea diver, oxygen is generally not going to be a problem. Guess what, it’s not going to be a problem on mars either. Because martians will have abundant power and will increase shirt sleeve spaces every day.

          When I was an air traffic controller they had limits on who could be stationed in Hawaii because it required a certain mindset to be limited to an island. Mars will start out as an island analog with one exception: It is an island that over time will turn into a continent and then an entire world with no limit on where a martian could travel from their homes. They will probably travel to other places in the solar system that earthers will find too expensive.

  5. Thomas Matula

    You miss the point. Its hard because NASA doesn’t want to do it, just as NASA didn’t want to do RLVs or Space Settlement.

    When all you are interested in is looking for bacteria on Mars everything else is “work” and work is hard :-)

  6. Larry J

    I’m not meaning to rehash for the 1,286,843rd time the humans verses robot explorers debate, but I honest have a hard time finding a justification for sending people to an asteroid. What is to be gained compared to the great expense? For the cost of one human exploration given NASA’s architecture, you could fly many unmanned missions and learn so much more. Landing on a whole planet is another matter, but seriously, an asteroid? Why?

    1. Trent Waddington

      I honest have a hard time finding a justification for sending people to an asteroid.

      That’s because you’re thinking about “exploration” which is a word that means anything the politicians say it does these days. If I take your question more broadly, the answer is “to live there”.

      1. Thomas Matula

        Trent,

        Exactly, its not about bank rolling science projects for faculty at the elite universities with billion dollar endowments, its about opening up the Solar System for everyone.

        1. ken anthony

          Since everyone (almost all) are not rich enough even to buy a space suit not to mention the ticket to ride itself, ya need a plan that pays for everyone… anybody know of such a thing? You know where enterprise allows freedom for all? Anyone?

          You know, where all the colonist become instant millionaires and those providing the ride for free become trillionaires? Without having to export a thing to earth? No unobtainium required. No miracles either. Using existing or announced technology? Announced by people that have already proven they can.

      2. Larry J

        The gravity on most asteroids is so low that a person could launch himself into orbit with his legs. You might as well live in a space station.

    2. K Lundermann

      I honest have a hard time finding a justification for sending people to an asteroid.

      It seems to me a human NEA mission is worthwhile only if it’s done relatively cheaply along the way or in addition to developing the capability to achieve a more worthy goal, like going to the moon, to Mars or to the main-belt asteroids. And it’s certainly not worthwhile on the basis of science alone, but then human spaceflight never is.

      The official NEA goal is ostensibly a stepping stone on the way to Mars, but the ultimate goal is so far in the future that it’s hard to connect the two.

  7. ken anthony

    Dr. Spudis said, “Both NEO and Earth continue to orbit the Sun and we need to make sure that the Earth is in the right place when we arrive back at its orbit. So in effect, we will spend months traveling there, in a vehicle with the habitable volume of a large walk-in closet (OK, two walk-in closets maybe), a short time at the destination and then months for the trip home. Is it worth it?”

      1. ken anthony

        I don’t follow Trent. He’s saying Delta V in not the only issue, but that relative velocity is also important. If your stay is limited because of orbital mechanics, why do it? This would not be an argument against mars. …and yes, I realize his moon prejudice. Please clarify.

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