A team of NASA researchers and experts in planetary defense unveiled an exciting proposal for exploring near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) using SpaceX's Starship. The proposal was made during the 8th IAA Planetary Defense Conference held in Vienna, Austria, a couple months ago in early April. TESMANIAN recently found a document at NASA's Technical Reports Server repository with information outlining their proposal.
The team behind the proposal consists of distinguished individuals from various fields: Lindley Johnson, NASA's inaugural Planetary Defense Officer, renowned for his previous role as Near Earth Object Programs Executive in the Planetary Sciences Division; Rob Landis, currently serving as a program executive in NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO); Paul Abell, the esteemed Chief Scientist for Small Body Exploration in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division at the Johnson Space Center; Dan Mazanek, a seasoned Senior Space Systems Engineer based at NASA Langley Research; Brent W. Barbee, an accomplished Aerospace Engineer within NASA's Navigation and Mission Design Branch; and Daniel R. Adamo, a recognized authority in human space flight trajectory design and operations with extensive experience in associated operations concept formulation, training, documentation, and software development.
They shared their insights on "Prospects for Future Human Space Flight Missions to Near-Earth Asteroids," with a presentation that outlined a groundbreaking plan for asteroid exploration. At the core of their proposal lies the upcoming NASA Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor space telescope. This advanced tool is designed to fulfill NASA's mission of cataloging at least 90% of NEOs larger than 140 meters, helping us better understand and mitigate potential Earth impactors. Additionally, NEO Surveyor plays a crucial role in identifying accessible NEAs suitable for both robotic and human missions. The massive telescope could be launched by SpaceX's Starship in the future, however, the agency is still developing the Surveyor and has not officially announced launch provider. It's estimated to be ready for launch by late-2027.
Near-Earth Asteroids are not just hazardous but also scientifically valuable, potentially containing resources like water. The researchers highlighted that NEA missions can advance four key aspects:
- Science: Enhancing our knowledge of the Solar System's formation and evolution.
- Exploration: Enabling human exploration beyond the Moon's vicinity.
- Resources: Developing the capability to use resources found on these asteroids.
- Planetary Defense: Mitigating the risk of asteroid impacts.
The proposal presented an exemplary mission concept using the SpaceX Starship and Falcon Heavy for a crewed exploration of a known NEA (near-Earth asteroid) named 2001 FR85. The technical details are complex, as shown in their presentation graphs below, but they can be broken down into simpler terms.
The researchers estimated the mass requirements for the mission, considering factors like crew size, mission duration, cargo, and propellant (detailed below). The Starship, which functions as the spacecraft for the mission, would carry three crew members, equipment, and supplies. The mission's propulsion system, using liquid oxygen and methane, would help navigate the spacecraft, both for the main propulsion and precise control. Starship is under development to be the world’s most powerful and capable spacecraft that will be able to perform complex missions.
The NASA researcher’s mission concept involves departing from and returning to a high-Earth orbit (HEO), minimizing the energy needed for travel. The mission duration would be around 152 days, including crew loiter time in HEO before and after the mission. The proposed mission aims to transport a crew of three to the target NEA, spend 16 days there while conducting teleoperated operations and extravehicular activities (EVAs), and then return to Earth. The cargo and resources carried would include equipment for operations, spares, and samples collected from the NEA. The proposal, shown below, involves using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the crew aboard a Dragon capsule and the capsule docking to Starship in orbit for crew transfer.
Data Source: NASA PDF Document
The researchers emphasized that this mission would serve as a test for more ambitious undertakings, such as missions to Mars or other NEAs. The relatively short mission duration and manageable propulsion requirements make it a stepping stone towards expanding humanity's presence in the solar system.
Looking forward, upcoming NEO survey instruments like NASA's NEO Surveyor are expected to discover larger NEAs that could be explored with even less energy and time, further advancing our understanding of the solar system and our ability to utilize its resources. In essence, this proposal presents an exciting opportunity to leverage SpaceX's Starship for exploring and learning from near-Earth asteroids, paving the way for humanity's deeper ventures into space.
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About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.