On any given day, NASA is juggling a number of projects, keeping track of the activity in Earth’s backyard. In an exciting space race revival, multiple mission objectives may inadvertently overlap one another. The universe is still largely mysterious, and intersecting projects, data, and discoveries can only be beneficial, as scientists meticulously map what lies in the great beyond. Asteroids are now in the cross-hairs of NASA telescopes as they search for a suitable space rock to pluck from its trajectory. Studying components of the asteroid could, in theory, offer insight into the nature of the universe and the existence of life beyond Earth.
Of course, this is not the singular objective of NASA scientists, but their searches for signs of life in the universe and the origins of our known universe may both play pivotal roles in the idea that if life exists outside of Earth, humankind could potentially find a way to survive on other planets. The End of Days theory may be a thing of the past, if NASA continues to pioneer the search for ways to essentially help humanity survive in the future. Apocalypse? Never heard of it.
As part of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), one method of asteroid interception requires astronauts to identify a nearby asteroid and use a solar-powered robotic retrieval unit to usher it closer to our Moon’s orbit. But why lasso a giant hunk of space rock and haul it closer to Earth? Once safely in the Moon’s orbit, it will be much easier—a relative term of course—to collect rock and soil samples. Astronauts will need to study the samples in space, due to the dangers of cross contaminating the samples with any biological matter found on Earth. The alternative method the agency is considering is to identify a larger asteroid farther from Earth, grab a hunk of it, and run. The idea, of course, remains the same: collecting and studying pieces of an asteroid will afford astronauts a closer look at these extraterrestrial samples and the secrets they hold.
While spending time in orbit, these space cowboys hope to glean any discernible clues into some of the most intriguing questions bamboozling mankind: is there life on other planets? How exactly did the universe form? Where does it end? Can humans live anywhere besides Earth? Studying the asteroid’s chemical composition may shed light into these weighty questions. The asteroid mission will take place within the next 10 to 15 years, and NASA anticipates to launch the project in 2019. Wrangling in an asteroid is a lofty goal, but mission scientists at NASA are up for the challenge.
Pondering the essence of the universe—and our existence in it—are not the only desired outcomes of the project. Like something out of a Hollywood movie, intercepting and redirecting asteroids away from Earth could possibly prevent future collisions with our planet. Enter: NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. As it stands, millions of asteroids are hurling past Earth, and approximately 20,000 of them have the potential to cause city-wide damage. While it is not realistic for astronauts to simply snatch-and-sling the asteroids away from Earth like some kind of Wild West cosmonaut, the data collected from the Asteroid Retrieval Mission will allow them to better understand these space rocks. More information could mean advancing methods of asteroid detection and interception, curbing potentially catastrophic collisions.
If this mission needs a Hollywood ending, however, suffice it to say that mankind need not wait for disaster to strike, because NASA’s intrepid astronauts are working tirelessly to protect Earth, launching into orbit, and meeting the asteroids in battle.
By Hayden Freed