Can humans land on an asteroid? After NASA proved that asteroids can be redirected using a kinetic impact with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) in September 2022, more scientists became interested in exploring asteroids. The American Space Agency used the DART mission to explore several impossibilities and show the level of exploration humans can be attaining in the future. During the Kinetic impact, the DART spacecraft captured several fascinating photos which it transmitted back to Earth before crashing on the surface of Dimorphos, an asteroid with a moon around its orbit named Didymos.
These fascinating images helped to propose a landing procedure on Didymos and it has recently created interest in how humans would land on an asteroid in the future. European Space Agency planetary scientist Naomi Murdoch describes how astronauts planning to land on asteroid Dimorphos on foot would navigate across the surface of the 557-foot (170 meters).
How Scientists Explained that Humans Will Land on an Asteroid
Planetary Scientist Naomi Murdoch has remained optimistic about how humans will land on an asteroid and walk on its surface.
“The boulders covering the surface of Dimorphos are much bigger than they might look,” Murdoch said. “At around 16.4 to 23 feet (5 to 7 meters) across, the largest ones are typically house-sized. Moving across these boulders would likely involve much more climbing and jumping than walking.”
Scientists revealed that these colossal boulders provide detailed information about the Dimorphos moonlet formation which may have involved its parent asteroid Didymos rotating at a great speed that it ejects material into space. researchers also suggest that Didymos’ shape which has a spinning top back this fascinating theory.
“Moving across these boulders would likely involve much more climbing and jumping than walking,” Murdoch stated describing the challenges the crew will face navigating the rough surface of the asteroid. “Be careful though- jump too fast and you might never come down again, because you could exceed the escape velocity.”
Risks astronauts will face while walking on an asteroid
Since the asteroid’s surface has a low-gravity terrain, it will be much easier to generate enough ground motion while traversing on its surface. Scientists revealed that astronauts walking on the terrain of the asteroid will either move on a solid surface or sink beneath it. In 2020, NASA released a video showing how NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission that visited the asteroid Bennu was nearly sinking after its leg touched down too hard on the surface of the space rock. Scientists said that the lander’s leg was almost sinking as Bennu exists as a rubble pile asteroid that is packed so loosely.
“A lot depends on whether its material is hard or soft, which would determine how high an astronaut might bounce or else sink,” Director of Research at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, Patrick Michel, said in ESA’s statement. “On the asteroid Bennu, visited by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, you would clearly sink if you landed too hard.”
Scientists are also showing concerns about how astronauts will adhere to the surface of the astronaut. This is because the gravity of Dimorphos is less than a millionth of our home planet. Unlike Earth where astronauts walk around freely, the asteroid has much less mass and its gravity is not strong enough to keep the astronaut for much longer on the surface of the space rock. Scientists named Patrick revealed that astronauts can be sent into orbit around the asteroid they are exploring for just 6 cm per second of upward motion.
“Jump too fast, and you might never come down again because you could exceed the local escape velocity,” Naomi added. “Plus, in the ultra-low gravity environment, it would be easy to generate significant ground motion, potentially triggering an avalanche of rocks.”
How Astronauts will stick to the surface of the space rock they are exploring when they land on an asteroid
Since astronauts can jump too fast while walking the surface of an asteroid, they seriously have to deploy creative tactics to enable them to stick to the surface of the space rock they are exploring. Scientists are suggesting that astronauts may use spikes or crampons, which are similar to tools used by mountain climbers to stick to the surface of the asteroid.
Hence, as the crew land on asteroid, they will find a means of safely deploying these spikes to avoid floating into space. The researchers are also suggesting the use of a thruster system by the crew to navigate safely on the surface of the asteroid. This thruster system will have similar features to a scuba diver used in exploring the ocean floor.
“You would want to avoid contact with surface rocks while gliding, however, as they are likely to be sharp enough to snag your spacesuit, having never been smoothed by water or wind,” Naomi explained. “Adding to the challenge, your weight would shift by about 10 to 20% depending on where you are on the surface because of tidal forces from the Didymos parent asteroid.”
What ESA Hopes To Accomplish With Its Hera Mission
While it may take a while before the space agency will consider sending astronauts to Dimorphos or any other asteroids, the European Space Agency (ESA) is already planning a DART follow-up mission named Hera to visit the space rock. This futuristic mission will launch in October 2024 and will deliver two shoe-box-sized CubeSats named Juventas and Milani to the surface of Dimorphos. ESA officials revealed that the two CubeSats will help to advance scientific observation of the moonlet.
Once the CubeSats land on asteroid, Juventas will deploy its gravimeter to make sure that it operates effectively notwithstanding the nature of Dimorphos’ surface. On the other hand, Milani will deploy its accelerometer in recording the force of its bounces as it lands on the asteroid. This measurement will enable the CubeSats to understand the gravity of the space rock. The data obtained from the Hera mission may be helpful someday in landing humans on the asteroid.
As ESA prepares for its Hera mission to Dimorphos, the agency’s scientists have described how humans will land on the surface of an asteroid using the data obtained from several missions. What do you think about this future of space exploration?