MIT scientist argues NASA's asteroid retrieval mission won't help us get to Mars

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Oct 29, 2014

The folks at NASA are keen on an ambitious plan to capture an asteroid and pull it into lunar orbit using a robotic probe — but one prominent MIT scientist thinks the mission is essentially a waste of time.

Richard P. Binzel, a professor of planetary science, aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has written a piece for Nature questioning the mission and calling it a “distraction” that won’t do much to get us to Mars — and will instead cost a boatload of money for research that he believes isn’t really that useful if the end goal is to eventually get us to the Red Planet.

NASA has been working on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) for 18 months, and current plans call for astronauts to potentially visit the asteroid by around 2025. The space agency has pitched the project as a major stepping stone toward a mission to Mars to develop necessary tech and techniques. But Binzel’s thesis argues the mission is largely unnecessary. 

In an additional comment to Space, Binzel argued ARM equates to a “multibillion-dollar expenditure that has nothing to do with getting humans to Mars.” Check out an extended excerpt from his Nature op-ed below:

“Reality soon set in: getting humans to any known near-Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s was deemed beyond the range and budget of emerging flight systems. So the ARM scheme was hatched: instead of sending humans to an asteroid, let's bring a piece of one to within the anticipated reach of a 2025 crew. An uncrewed solar-electric propulsion vehicle would capture the booty and tug it back to a lunar orbit, where astronauts launched separately could explore it.

Mission accomplished? Not at all, in my view. Hardware and operations to capture, contain and redirect an asteroid are dead-end elements with no value for long-duration crewed space travel. Delivering a supply module to lunar space would be a more sensible way to demonstrate solar-electric propulsion and benefit astronaut safety. Conveying to the public that reaching Mars requires patient and diligent progression in capabilities is the honest alternative to distracting them with a one-off costly stunt.

Equally specious in my opinion are arguments that ARM can deliver important new information on asteroid hazards or space resources. The ARM target would be scarcely one-quarter the size and one-hundredth the mass of the Chelyabinsk body — too small to survive atmospheric passage. And the idea that we might benefit any time soon by extracting water or rocket fuel out of an asteroid is fantastical, owing to its cost and complexity.”

It’s intriguing to get another perspective on the project, and with his credentials, Binzel seems like a guy who would be qualified to speak on the topic. So what do you think? Is ARM just distracting us with something shiny, or could it really help us reach Mars?

(Via Space)