Published: July 9, 2016

What is the next step to introduce humanity into the universe? NASA has a mission planned for the 2020’s that will present many new opportunities in the areas of science and safety. This mission’s objective, as described on NASA’s website, will be to capture a piece of an asteroid and redirect it into an orbit around our moon. Using a robotic machine, NASA will first attempt to obtain part of a nearby asteroid. This asteroid, though, must have the correct velocity and mass if it is to not pose a threat to Earth. For example, it must be a certain size or smaller so that if the mission fails and the rock is sent towards Earth, it will burn up in the atmosphere and avoid casualties. After a piece is collected, it will be transferred into an orbit around the moon where astronauts can travel back and forth and collect samples.  This will greatly advance science as we can visit first hand and collect any samples needed, but the benefits don’t stop there. By researching the perfect asteroid to take a sample from and experimenting with moving chunks of space rock, we can further improve our chances of deflecting collision course objects in the future. Lastly, we will gain a wealth of space travel experience that could prove essential for sending a manned mission to Mars. One example is the new thrust system that will be added to the Orion Spacecraft (the shuttle that will take the astronauts to explore the captured piece of asteroid). By generating electric fields from solar panels, the vehicle can expel ions and create a slow, but extremely efficient, thrust system. Additionally, on this mission aboard the Orion spacecraft astronauts will be testing out new improvements to the Primary Life Support System (PLSS) in the space suits. By making changes to the carbon dioxide removal systems, adjustments to tolerate a higher atmospheric pressure, and easier repair techniques, NASA is starting to prepare missions to Mars. These new upgrades will first be used during the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This mission will provide us with knowledge, not only about the composition of asteroids in the universe, but also about what can be improved to make a mission to Mars run smoothly.

Until the mission is completed and we can collect Martian rocks for ourselves, though, we must turn to what we have today. For example, Martian meteorite ALH84001 was found in Antarctica in 1984, and it has been dated to be the oldest one acquired by three fold. Upon further investigation, it appeared to hold microscopic fossils only about 1/100 of the diameter of a human hair. Furtherly, when organisms die, they degrade into Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). These organic molecules were found amongst the fossils in this Martian rock. Other scientists, though, say that this type of “fossil”-looking shape could be formed inorganically. Currently, there is not enough information to tell whether it is or isn’t a fossil. We must continue to search.