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Asteroids Gaining New Focus


The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft captured this close up image of a crater landslide on the asteroid Lutetia in July 2010. Image Credit/ESA

Asteroids are gaining big time on the respect scale.

Two years ago, President Obama directed NASA to alter plans for a human lunar return and focus instead on mission that would land U.S. explorers one of the small rocky bodies by 2025. The mission would prepare explorers for the eventual exploration of Mars.

In June, a small team of  U. S., European and Japanese astronauts and scientists spent a dozen days below the Atlantic Ocean off Key Largo, Fla.,  in the Aquarius habitat evaluating the best techniques for traversing and gathering soil and rock samples on the low gravity bodies.

In March, divers prepare the undersea Aquarius habitat for a simulated NASA sponsored asteroid mission. Photo Credit/NASA

Asteroids are drawing the interest of commercial as well as traditional government mission planners.

Earlier this year, the U. S. company Planetary Resources announced plans to prospect for resources – water for rocket fuel and human life support as well as precious metals — on near Earth asteroids. With these resources, humans could extend their reach deeper into the solar system.

In May, NASA’s Wide field Infrared Space Explorer mission, or WISE, using observations from an infrared space telescope, provided an impressive map of the inner solar system revealing asteroids that could pose a potential collision threat to the Earth.There’s a bunch.

And NASA’s Dawn mission is wrapping up an orbital mission to the large asteroid Vesta and heading for a second asteroid target, Ceres. Vesta, scientists found, is much like a small planet.

Ceres: Asteroid or small planet? Image Credit/NASA


In addition to resources and hazards, asteroids and their close relatives, comets, were likely left over from the formation of the solar system and the planets more than 4.5 billion years ago.  Studies of the two planetary bodies should reveal more about the early epoch.

This week, the European Space Agency provided a brief but compelling clip as its Rosetta spacecraft zipped within 4,000 miles of the asteroid Lutetia on July 10, 2010. Lutetia appears heavily battered by impacts with other asteroids, an indication it history dates back to the solar system’s earliest era.

Launched in 2004, Rosetta is on its way to a 2014 encounter with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The ambitious $1.25 billion European mission was designed to orbit the comet as it swings around the sun. A small probe, Philae, was designed to depart the orbiter and land on the comet on Nov. 10, 2014.

In this artist's drawing, the European Space Agency Rosetta spacecraft orbits a distant comet. The ESA lander Philae studies the comet's surface. Image Credit/ESA

The Rosetta orbiter and lander include 20 science instruments, one of them led by a U. S. researcher.



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