Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.
Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.
In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed "Plymouth Rock — An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion." Lockheed is the builder of NASA's Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.
Study teams are now readying high-level briefings for NASA leaders — perhaps as early as this week — on a pilgrimage to an asteroid, along with appraisals of anchoring large, astronaut-enabled telescopes far from Earth, a human precursor mission to the vicinity of Mars, as well as an initiative to power-beam energy from space to Earth.
The briefings have been spurred in response to the recent Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee and the option of a "Flexible Path" to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
On this path, the committee suggested, humans would visit sites never visited before and extend U.S. savvy in how to operate in space — while traversing greater and greater distances from Earth.
The merits of a human mission to a Near Earth Object were detailed here Nov. 18 during a two-day meeting of the Small Bodies Assessment Group.
SBAG was established by NASA in 2008 to identify scientific priorities and opportunities for the exploration of asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, small satellites and Trans-Neptunian Objects. The group also provides scientific input on the utility of asteroids and comets in support of human space activities.
The new studies are viewed as an iterative process — to be weighed both by NASA and the White House, said Paul Abell, a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute detailed to the space agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and working in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate. "It's going to take a bit of time. I don't think there's going to be a quick decision."
How the White House will react to a human trek to an asteroid is beyond anybody's crystal ball. However, undertaking the effort has garnered the attention of Lockheed Martin — builder of the space shuttle replacement — the Orion spacecraft.
The Plymouth Rock mission study began a couple years ago, said Josh Hopkins, in the advanced programs for human space flight division at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Denver, Colo.
"We have been looking at what other interesting science missions could be done with Orion ... and asteroids were one of the ideas that percolated to the top," Hopkins told the SBAG attendees. He made it clear that the firm's study was done using corporate funds and doesn't imply that NASA has endorsed company results.
Initial looks at the NEO venture involve the coupling of two Orion spacecraft.
In this situation, a two-person Orion would link up with an unpiloted sister craft that's loaded with extra fuel, food, water, and oxygen. It would be tossed into orbit — as well as an Earth departure stage — by NASA's planned Ares V heavy-lift booster.
Bridging the moon and Mars
While detailed NASA and industry looks at the makings of a NEO mission are still in play — including use of inflatable modules to add crew volume — "it's an attractive option," Hopkins said. "It's really a good middle-step between the moon and Mars."
However, maximizing astronaut safety, dealing with such things as trash management, cosmic rays, sketching out abort scenarios must still be addressed, Hopkins noted. But given the core attributes already built into the Orion system "we think it does make sense for the human spaceflight program to be investigating this," he said.
Between NASA and industry looks, the flight of astronauts to a NEO could occur in the 2020 to 2025 time period. The round-trip mission would take some six months.
There would be no landing on the asteroid. Rather, they would park in close proximity, then jet backpack onto the object. Once there, science gear would be deployed as samples of the space rock are gathered — on the order of a couple hundred pounds (100 kilograms).
"We assume staying at the asteroid for five days. They could stay a week or two. But staying for a month gets hard," Hopkins explained. While on duty, astronauts would engage in gathering data useful to understand the internal makeup of the asteroid. That, in turn, is solidly helpful, he added, in dealing with harmful space rocks on a worrisome trajectory dangerous to Earth.
Today, there are a handful of candidate asteroids that could be visited a couple decades from now, said Clark Chapman, an asteroid expert at Southwest Research Institute here in Boulder. That number will grow as more ground and space-based instruments come on-line, surely increasing the discovery rate of NEOs, he stated.
"We'd really like a larger pool of candidate targets so that we could visit a NEO that has cool properties and would have the greatest scientific return," Chapman told SPACE.com.
"Human exploration is for human purposes," said Mark Sykes, chair of the Small Bodies Assessment Group. He is also director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz .
Science by itself doesn't drive human exploration, Sykes noted, "but we can benefit, scientifically, from this. We'll take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way!"
Sykes said that he had briefed the committee that conducted the recent review of U.S. human spaceflight plans.
Specifically, Sykes said that he underscored the prospect that NEOs represent a location of resources that could have a profound impact on expanding sustainable human operations beyond low Earth orbit. They could be a well spring of water, he added, as well as useful for life support and radiation shielding.
If so, asteroids may well act as a lynch pin for people living, working and populating space, Sykes suggested. But are those resources recoverable in an economic way?
"It's within the realm of consideration. Of course, a lot more homework needs to be done," Sykes stressed.