A few days ago, NASA announced that it was looking into the possibility of using asteroids to ferry astronauts to and fro Earth on a future mission to the red planet. The initial idea was to piggy back on an asteroid passing Earth on its way to Mars, using the mass of the asteroid to absorb the cosmic radiation that would otherwise pose a significant risk to the astronauts:
Cosmic rays can damage DNA, increasing the risks of cancer and cataracts for space travelers. Current research suggests that the amount of radiation that would bombard an astronaut during a thousand-day, round-trip Mars mission increases his or her risk of cancer by 1 to 19 percent.
So the idea would not only save on fuel, on maneuvering propellant, and the overall cost of the mission, it would also prove itself to be a far safer way of travelling to our sister planet.
The only trouble is that the viable asteroids passing Earth on their way to Mars are few and far between and do not have a regular orbit going from one planet to the other.
So now the new thinking is that we should try to divert the course of an asteroid passing Earth and aim it at Mars a bit like changing the direction of a train by switching the tracks, steering it in a different direction.
The options available for changing the course of an asteroid are varied and hypothetical; they range from using explosives to tethers to correct the course of a 10 or 20 metre lump of rock travelling at unbelievable speeds. No easy task, for sure.
We have shown with the Hayabusa mission that we can land on an asteroid with relative ease. Now we need to be able to change its trajectory and remain on the surface of one for an entire year. But surely this is a natural leap from landing an unmanned probe to landing a crew on one. We could take enough fuel to Mars in large tanks for the coast home, or send another asteroid the way of Mars for the astronauts to hook up with them for the return journey; in that eventuality we could instead take along the materials necessary to establish a tentative base on the planets surface.
It’s an ingenious idea. And we could possibly use it to travel further outward.
As I have previously stated (HERE) I personally believe that our real chance of finding life within our solar system lies beneath the icy surface of Europa. But the Jovian moons are a long way away, and the effects that cosmic radiation would have on a human crew making the journey would surely be detrimental if not fatal. But if we can ride using an asteroid, at incredible speed, and with the risk of radiation exposure taken away… then why not?
I have no doubt we could get to Mars and land on it, and establish some form of colony. But to what end? Mars is a lifeless, barren world. From what we can tell, if there was any life on it, then it has been gone for a very long time. Perhaps there was never life there. But there is a strong possibility of life beneath Europa’s surface.
That is where we should head.
Test the asteroid-piggy-back idea out first, boost the public’s interest in space by making the ‘giant leap’ to a new world, but then we should turn our attention outward to Jupiter and to the ocean beneath Europa…
Click HERE to learn more.