Saturday, April 6, 2013

NASA plans to drag a second Moon from space...

Okay, to be more correct, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) on April 5th said that the president's 2014 federal budget request will likely include one hundred million dollars as a down payment for a special NASA project. Specifically, the space agency will be tasked with capturing and dragging a 500-ton asteroid and parking it in a stable orbit around the Moon, effectively giving our Moon it's own mini-moon. There it will become a mining resource and a scientific study location. It might also serve as a base for other moon and mars colony ventures. Robotic spacecraft are expected to do all the heavy lifting, and then sometime in 2021 Astronauts would walk on the asteroid's surface. The total project cost is expected to run about 2.5 billion dollars.

Why would we do this when we have so many pressing needs right here on Earth?

Probably the strongest argument would be that on February 15th, 2013, at about 9:20 am local time, a 10-ton meteor about 49 feet wide streaked into our atmosphere at 33,000 miles per hour and exploded 18-32 miles in the sky above Russia's Ural Mountains. The blast shattered windows for miles and injured upwards of 1,100 people. On the same day, a massive 150-foot asteroid, weighing 143,000 tons, just missed Earth by a little over 17,000 miles. That means it came closer than many of our current orbiting satellites.

We are literally sitting ducks in a galactic shooting gallery. In 1908, an asteroid exploded a short distance above the ground over Tunguska, Siberia. The blast was more than 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima atom bomb. 830 square miles of dense forest was flattened as if stomped on by a giant foot. Since the comet or asteroid (there is some debate about the specifics) that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, our Earth has seen similar, smaller-scale impacts hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. If we don't learn how to stop, or at the very least deflect, an incoming asteroid, our species is doomed to relive the dinosaurs' rather unpleasant demise.

There are other less calamitous but equally viable reasons for undertaking this mission, not the least of which is that every time humankind makes a major technological push, there are thousands of smaller but valuable discoveries along the way. Did you know that NASA has already given us memory foam (originally named temper foam), freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency "space blankets", Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and now Speedo's LZR Racer swimsuits? In all, the space program is credited with more than 1600 technological advances that are used everyday in computers, medicine and advanced engineering around the world.

However, maybe the most convincing argument, aside from protecting our planet, is that we need an infrastructure for the human race to move out into the solar system and beyond. There are a dozen companies currently amassing funding and technologies to make commercial space ventures possible, but ultimately it is going to require many missions and as well as multiple fueling, mining, and station facilities to allow humans to become truly multi-planetary and thereby safe from a possible, and some say inevitable, Earth extinction event.

In short, NASA's asteroid retrieval project will be another rung in that important ladder to our future.

What do you think?


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