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Experts think about how to put humans on an asteroid

A visit by humans to an asteroid may take a step closer to reality at a NASA workshop this week.
Image: Artist's interpretation of manned mission to near-Earth asteroid
An artist's interpretation of a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid using NASA's new Orion spacecraft. Dan Durda / FIAAA
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A visit by humans to an asteroid may take a step closer to reality at a NASA workshop this week.

A spirit of excitement is bubbling over NASA's new aim, not unlike when the agency first aimed to land a man on the moon, NASA's Laurie Leshin said ahead of the two-day session, set for Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Planetary defense against killer space rocks also has a place on the agenda.

The human exploration of a near-Earth object would rely upon the experiences of robotic expeditions like Japan's Hayabusa mission, which recently returned to Earth with particles that may be asteroid samples.

Experts and leaders from government, academia, industry and the international community are expected to weigh in on what would be required to stage a mission to a near-Earth object, according to Leshin, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

"Between Kennedys speech at Rice and Neil Armstrongs first steps, there were a lot of meetings like this," Leshin told "We are excited to begin to bring together the range of ideas that exist for human exploration of NEOs and start to focus them on a plan forward."

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave his historic speech at Rice University discussing the goal of putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade. It came one year after he announced the goal to Congress. Armstrong commanded the first manned moon landing mission, in July 1969.

The new goal of sending astronauts to land on asteroids is part of President Barack Obama's plan for the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Obama announced the new direction for NASA in April, two months after proposing a 2011 NASA budgetthat included the cancellation of the agency's moon-oriented Constellation program.

The Congress is still discussing NASA's 2011 budget (the House is expected to revisit the issue next month), but that hasn't stopped scientists from taking a look at what a manned mission to an asteroid would entail.

That's where this week's workshop comes in.

Goals for the meeting include boosting the collective understanding of NEOs and laying out NASA's plans for the human mission. NASA also hopes to collect outside input on any proposed mission objectives and identify any gaps in technology or know-how.

Regarding planetary defense, experts would consider questions such as what remains unknown about NEOs and what technologies could be used to stop objects that pose a threat to Earth. A NASA panel recently called for the creation of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office and suggested making planetary defense a top-level NASA strategic goal.

The meeting also will consider whether a human mission to an NEO could work in tandem with a mission to the moon or Mars. Obama's current plan for NASA would focus on ambitious heavy-lift rockets to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to an asteroid and Mars.