An expert panel appointed by US President Barack Obama has recommended bypassing the Moon in favour of an asteroid for future manned missions in space.
According to a report in the Telegraph, the target for future space missions would be an as yet-unidentified asteroid - one of the countless ancient pieces of debris from the dawn of the solar system that still circle the sun. It might measure just 500 yards across, with a surface area no greater than the Vatican City.
That stop would be a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of landing a man on Mars, the report suggested.
Thomas Jones, a science author and former NASA Shuttle astronaut, who has conducted a series of spacewalks, is an enthusiastic cheerleader for “mission asteroid”.
“It’s exciting and exhilarating, and also very promising for scientific research as asteroids are the raw materials for our planets, left over from the time when the solar system was formed,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
Jones listed the advantages of switching our attention to asteroids, which have almost no gravitiational field and are likely to be rich in minerals.
Raw materials such as water, nitrogen and phosphorus could be extracted and transported much more easily than any recovered from the Moon, where gravity is much greater. These resources could be crucial for supporting onward missions to Mars.
Setting foot on an asteroid may be more complex than landing on the lunar surface. A specially designed landing craft would be required which would in effect “dock” with the asteroid - slowly approaching its surface until it touches, then firing harpoon-type tethers into the ground to hold it in contact, like tent pegs, in the almost weightless environment.
Such a step may not just be a matter of human exploration but also of human survival as scientists believe it is only a matter of time, even if that is measured in millenia, before one such space object will be found to be on a collision course with Earth.
A strike by a medium-sized asteroid could wipe out mankind, so the information that would be garnered by landing on one would be crucial to developing a method of diverting one in the future.
Jeff Foust, an aerospace analyst and commentator, predicted that man might be able to visit an asteroid by the mid-2020s, aim for a mission to one of the Martian moons about 2030 and then a few years later aim for the holy grail of space exploration - a trip to the Red Planet itself.