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Friday, 3 September 2010

"Plymouth Rock" asteroid mission concept

Friday, September 03, 2010

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Speaking of asteroids, Lockheed Martin recently revealed a proposition to use a dual Orion spacecrafts to make a round trip to a Near Earth Asteroid in 2019.

The recent discovery of a new class of many small asteroids - 5 to 75 meters wide - has enabled the formulation of this potential new destination for deep space human exploration in the near term. Favorable orbital alignments occur only a few times per decade.
The crew would conduct spacewalks to retrieve a treasure trove of soil and rock samples for high powered analysis back on Earth. This would simultaneously answer key scientific questions on the formation of our solar system as well as significantly bolster planetary defense strategies against incoming asteroids on a potentially deadly collision course with Earth.
Furthermore, the Orion Asteroid Trek would also serve as a key stepping stone on the road to Mars in the 2030's by developing, practicing and mastering the advanced technologies essential for a human expedition to the red planet.

The mission plan is similar to the now defunct Constellation program, except leaving out the Altair lunar lander. The idea is to launch one manned Orion capsule and one unmanned capsule coupled to an Earth Departure Stage and then to have them rendezvous in orbit before departing for Asteroid 2008 EA9.


The mission would last for 195 days which would be "just within the vehicles capabilities and it will be stuffed to the gills".

The future of Orion is murky. President Obama initially sought to terminate Project Constellation and cancel Orion and the Ares boosters in his 2011 NASA budget request. After strong opposition to his proposals in Congress, Obama subsequently announced a revival for Orion, but with only limited functionality as a "rescue lifeboat" for the ISS crew. 
Bipartisan legislation drafted in both houses of Congress would continue funding of a fully capable Orion crew vehicle to reach LEO and beyond. But significant differences remain to be ironed out between Congress and the Obama Administration.
Meanwhile, work is progressing on the pioneer test capsule of the Orion crew vehicle - known as the Ground Test Article or GTA - which is currently undergoing pressure testing by Lockheed Martin at the NASA Michoud Assembly facility in New Orleans, LA.

On a personal level, this is the kind of stuff I'd like to see. NASA has been stuck in LEO for far too long and even though there have been some extremely succesfull missions like for example Spirit and Opportunity (not to mention the ISS), I think it's time for NASA to start doing what they do best, namely cutting edge space exploration. Leave the LEO lifting business to the emerging commercial companies like SpaceX and concentrate on the great challenges of space exploration.

The way the Obama administration restructured NASA and what their goals should be is absolutely a step in the right direction, but I also kind of agree with detractors who now think that NASA has no real direction and no "tentpole" mission to catch the public's interest. In the long run I think that tentpole mission is a trip to Mars, but that's not until the 2030s so doing something like this a decade earlier is just the right idea. Not to mention that it'd provide a lot of valuable insight into that eventual Mars mission.

Read the entire article by Ken Kramer at onorbit.com.

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