How could humans help?
Human Mission to a Near Earth Object
Human explorations of asteroids create an opportunity to conduct valuable scientific research about the origin of our solar system as well as the possibility of potential missions to Mars. These missions would strengthen ideas for planetary defence, including the deflection of a NEO from its likely collision with planet Earth.
(Composite of ESA asteroid image and NASA Orion spacecraft)
Advantages of human supported missions to NEOs
The critical question still remains: What advantages do human missions have over their unmanned counterparts in terms of efficiency and effectiveness? There are three main ways these missions could be more beneficial:
- Explorative operations prior to deflection missions
- This involves collecting samples of an asteroid and analysing their material composition by using human-assisted drilling. This in turn could allow us to understand how to reduce the impact of these asteroids hitting the Earth.
- Technical preparation of deflection missions
- For example; ending a spacecraft with a radio beacon to an asteroid would allow us to determine its trajectory and how big of a threat it could be to the Earth.
- Participation of deflection missions
- The deployment of nuclear warheads on or below the surface of asteroids could deflect their path away from the Earth. Using crewed spacecraft as gravity tractors could also be used to redirect the trajectory of an asteroid.
Human versus robotic missions
It is still unclear whether there really is a cost-effective role that human beings could play in deflecting the hazards posed by NEOs. On the other hand, due to the real-time reactivity, human presence might enhance the scientific learning curve for asteroid characterization better than unmanned operations. Whether human-assisted support will heavily contribute to deflection missions or simply carry limited value remains a topic for further analysis and discussion. It is not possible to determine what advances in technology will be available in 20 to 30 years from now. However, in some fields, robotic solutions are more suitable for well-defined, risky and often repeated operations, whereas human presence is preferred for less-programmable, variable solutions that require flexibility and a level of autonomy.