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On Earth Day, Asteroids and Human Trips to Mars Get the Attention

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Apr-2014
Updated: 23-Apr-2014 10:42 AM

Today was Earth Day 2014.  Former astronaut Ed Lu used it as an occasion to release a visualization of 26 asteroid impacts with Earth since 2000 to demonstrate that such events are not rare.  As head of the B612 Foundation, he is intent on building a space telescope with non-government funds to find where the Earth-threatening asteroids are so we can defend Earth against them.  Fellow former astronaut Tom Jones does too, but he has something more in mind -- find asteroids and use their resources to enable and/or lower the cost of sending people to Mars.  That goal, sending people to Mars, was the focus of a separate conference in Washington, DC today where NASA officials continued to make the case for an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to the Red Planet.

Lu, Jones and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders -- the man who took the historic "Earthrise" photo as he orbited the Moon in 1968 -- spoke at an event at Seattle's Museum of Flight.  The B612 Foundation, named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince, is raising funds from philanthropists and the public to build an infrared space telescope for launch in 2018 to identify the location of asteroids, especially those that threaten Earth.   Lu's message is that deflecting asteroids away from Earth is easy as long as there is enough warning time.  A little nudge from a spacecraft that impacts the asteroid is all that's needed.  "We humans can go and change this," he exclaimed,  "There is nothing stopping us from doing it."   The next great space mission, Lu said, is protecting planet Earth.

B612 released a video (try Fireflox if IE doesn't work) based on analysis by Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario of 26 asteroid impacts with Earth since 2000.  The data are from an international network of "infrasound" sensors that monitor for tests of nuclear weapons explosions.   The video shows where the 26 impacts took place, mostly over ocean areas.  Lu explained at a pre-press conference telecom that "impact" means impact with the Earth's atmosphere, not the surface.  The point of the video is not to alarm people, but to "inspire" them to do something to fix the problem, Lu said.

Tom Jones agreed with the goals of the B612 Foundation and also promoted the concept of finding asteroids so their resources can be exploited to enable human deep space exploration, especially to Mars.  Jones is an advisor to Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C, NASA officials including Administrator Charlie Bolden outlined the agency's concept for sending people to the surface of Mars.  This took place at the second "Humans to Mars Summit" that kicked off with a talk by Bolden and a panel moderated by journalist Miles O'Brien featuring the head of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier and NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Mike Gazarik.

The NASA team continued to promote the Obama Administration's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to sending people to the surface of Mars.  Finding asteroids -- B612's focus -- is indeed part of ARM, but primarily using ground-based equipment.  The Obama Administration doubled the amount of money (from $20 million per year to $40 million per year) NASA can spend on locating asteroids because of ARM, but its plans do not include launching an infrared telescope like Sentinel.  That is why B612 is trying to raise money from philanthropists and the public to launch such a telescope.

From NASA's perspective, ARM is part of a long term strategy to send people to the surface of Mars.  Last week, Gesternmaier won kudos from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) for articulating how ARM fits into the longer term Mars strategy.  NAC members worried, however, that he emphasized that the strategy requires a "modest" increase in NASA's budget.

He and Bolden continued to stress that today.  They did not define "modest increase," but considering that President Obama's total budget request for NASA in FY2015 is a $186 million cut from FY2014 demonstrates the challenge NASA has in adding to its available funds. 

Gerstenmaier's theme is that progress can be made, albeit slowly, to landing people on Mars if NASA gets a modest budget increase using a steppingstone approach that includes the International Space Station (ISS) and ARM to demonstrate operations further from Earth than ISS, but not so far that crews could not return home expeditiously in an emergency.  Overall, it is a matter of having a flexible, sustainable program that can adapt to changes in political leadership and that incorporates cooperation with the private sector and other countries.  When asked if that includes China, Gerstenmaier said he could not imagine that "at some point we don't work with China."  He joked that he could be "teleported off this stage to Mars" for suggesting it, however.

The Humans to Mars Summit (H2M) continues through Thursday.  Many of the sessions are being webcast.


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