Is bagging an asteroid the best way to get to Mars?

NASA plans to redirect an asteroid into the moon's orbit so that astronauts can examine it and take samples. But a planetary scientist from MIT says this is putting us on the wrong path for future space exploration.

YouTube Screenshot
This artist's rendering shows what it may look like for an astronaut taking a sample from a target asteroid, as planned by NASA for its Asteroid Redirect Mission.

What's the best way to get to Mars?

Scientists generally agree that spending more time with asteroids will aid in the more-distant plan to set foot on Mars. To this end, NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission involves picking an asteroid, or a piece of one, and redirecting it into the moon's orbit, so that astronauts can investigate the mass and bring back samples. But one MIT professor is questioning the notion of bringing an asteroid to astronauts, instead of the other way around.

According to planetary scientist Richard Binzel, the asteroid retrieval plan will cost billions of dollars and provide scientists with, at most, one rock, an argument that he outlines in a commentary published this week in the journal Nature

"Simple orbital physics tells you that you don't need to retrieve," Binzel told the Monitor. "There are natural objects there."

Those natural objects are indeed the same asteroids that NASA's scientists are looking at in their search for ARM candidates. The only problem, says Binzel, is that scientists don't have the comprehensive survey data that would describe the number and locations of all these asteroids.

So if NASA instead focused its attention on completing an extensive asteroid survey, Binzel says that out of the millions of near-Earth asteroids, there could be thousands of options accessible to astronauts. And this number might include a few asteroids large enough for astronauts to use as "practice" for going to Mars or its larger moon, Phobos.

"Those thousands of destinations are far more inspiring than a rock in a baggie," says Binzel.

Binzel says that, although he is not afraid to criticize the ARM program, his purpose is not necessarily to attack the NASA proposal but rather to provide a more beneficial and interesting alternative. Performing an asteroid survey would not only provide scientists with a detailed catologue of asteroids available to them, it would also accomplish the task of finding any hazardous objects.

"There's a synergy between the needs of human space flight and the greater good of civilization understanding the nature of any possible asteroid threat," Binzel says.

The George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, which calls for a survey of near-Earth asteroids and comets at least 100 meters in diameter, was introduced to Congress in 2005. An impasse between the space agency and the White House over funding, however, has resulted in failure to carry out the survey.

Binzel suggests that NASA, in addition to completing a survey, launch a competition to find the best robotic methods for asteroid deflection and resource extraction. These projects, Binzel argues, would be much more cost-effective than ARM and would put the nation's space agency on the right path to Mars.

"There's a win-win scenario here," says Binzel.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Is bagging an asteroid the best way to get to Mars?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today