Scientists predict humans will land on an Asteroid by 2073, and Jupiter in 2103

Provided humans reach Mars by 2038.
Deena Theresa
A group of asteroids in front of the Milky Way.dottedhippo/iStock

In 2010, nearly 50 years after President John F. Kennedy proposed sending a man to the moon, President Obama suggested a 2025 date for NASA to land humans on an asteroid. 

If only it were as easy as in the Bruce Willis vehicle Armageddon.

Back in 2010, it seemed highly like an improbable feat. In fact, even setting a timeline for landing a human on an asteroid sounded absurd.

Ten years later, in 2020, NASA's Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) briefly touched down on an ancient asteroid, known as Bennu, to collect dust and pebbles from the surface for delivery to Earth in 2023.

That was a first for the agency.

Now, in exciting news, rocket scientists have predicted that human space missions to the Asteroid Belt could take place within 50 years, provided humans reach Mars by 2038.

This means that human landings on other celestial objects - beyond the Moon and Mars - could be witnessed by many who are alive today.

The scientists - Jonathan Jiang, group supervisor and principal scientist at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, and colleagues - have published their findings in a study titled Impact of Economic Constraints on the Projected Timeframe for Human-Crewed Deep Space Exploration which is currently under peer review. Their model is based on the economic analysis of the rate at which space budgets increase over time and the rate at which technology has progressed since the beginning of the space age.

Searching for other worlds, a requirement

Jiang tells IE that one of the triggers to conduct a study on deep space exploration and crewed missions to other worlds was a photograph of the Earth taken from Mars, by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. "It's a tiny dot surrounded by darkness. And our current understanding of physics tells us that we're trapped on this tiny dot with limited resources and climate variations. And sooner or later, it's a danger to us," Jiang tells us.

Jiang feels that, despite our technological prowess, humans "behave like children". If another civilization visits the Earth, they would be surprised to see humans carrying weapons to engage in battle and kill each other, he speculates.

Concerns about overpopulation, the fight for resources, the possibility of resource wars, and even eventual extinction have all led to the drive-by some to develop colonies in space and find new homes off-world. Those who propose this as a solution feel that developing colonies on other worlds would almost guarantee the long-term survival of humans from all sorts of calamities that could befall the home planet.

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Jiang mentions Professor Stephen Hawking's warning that humans must leave Earth in the next 200 years if we want to survive.

The physicist believed that life on Earth ran the risk of being wiped out by an asteroid strike, runaway AI, or alien invasion. He also added that over-population, human aggression, and climate change could cause humanity to self-destruct.

Hawking believed that it was too risky to put all humanity's eggs into one basket and that future generations needed to forge a new life in space.

However, undertaking such missions would require efficient planning, which has several influencing factors.

"Our previous work was the first step towards predicting timeframes for the first human-crewed launches from Earth to Solar System. The model was developed based on trends from empirical data of space exploration and computing power through the first six-plus decades of the Space Age which projects the earliest possible launch dates for human-crewed missions. The model used computational power," says Jiang.

Based on the team's previous study and multiple variables' analysis, more precise conclusions were required. That resulted in the revised timeline. 

Economic factors, first

The current study first delves into NASA's budget since its formation in 1958.

There are three peaks in this curve, corresponding to significant increases in spending. The first peak occurred when the United States and the Soviet Union were heavily involved in the Space Race

The second one can be seen in the 1990s - regarding a decision to partner with the private sector to develop a space shuttle replacement. 

In 1989, Bush Senior announced what came to be known as the Space Exploration Initiative. He encouraged the signing of a new commercial space policy. In 1991, he signed an agreement with Russia to cooperate on the ISS.

The next peak was in 2018 - the result of the U.S. government release of the “National Space Exploration Activities Report” which mentions the Artemis program to return humans to the moon and also send them to Mars.

"The budget allocated by the US government to the military is $801 bn. On the contrary, NASA's budget for peaceful space exploration is only $24 bn. This means that most of our resources, intelligence, technology, and money are used to develop weapons that will kill other humans," says Jiang. 

Technological progress

The second factor taken into account is technological advancement. 

According to the paper, it is implicitly assumed that technology related to space exploration will keep developing at a brisk pace, thereby continuing further research and development.

The study measures technological growth by counting the number of scientific papers published on deep space exploration in the US every year. This is then used "as a proxy to gauge the overall technology level of cutting-edge developments in this complex realm", as per the paper.

As technology and productivity improve, it is expected to reduce the cost of labor-intensive construction processes, thereby decreasing the investment required for future human deep space missions.

"Deep space exploration is influenced by national or international scale investment - which means budgets will always influence the implementation of spaceflight programs. At the same time, we've also considered hindrances - computers were used to simulate the possibility of nuclear wars, climate change, and pandemic outbreaks that could slow down progress," says Jiang.

Moon, Mars, Asteroid Belt, Jupiter, Saturn - in that order

The final factor used is the radius of human activity beyond Earth. The moon is the closest celestial body to Earth, and astronauts have already traveled that distance with proven spacecraft technology - landing on a body at a distance of 0.0026 Astronomical Units.

The next step will be a lunar base - NASA's Artemis mission and Lunar Exploration Program in the 2020s. Establishing a base on the moon will play a prominent role in preparing for the crewed missions to Mars.

Then, humans could reach Mars in about 2037, at which point the radius of human activity will increase to 0.3763 AU.

Assuming this mission is successful, a base could be established on Mars to support further crewed exploration programs to other celestial bodies in the Solar System.

According to the paper, if all goes well, humans could land on asteroids in 2073, Jupiter in 2103, and Saturn in 2132.

According to the team, "The results thus far suggest the worlds of our solar system, throughout human history merely specs of light in the night sky, will soon be within our grasp".

Abstract: Deep space exploration offers the most profound opportunity for the expansion of humanity and our understanding of the Universe, but remains extremely challenging. Progress will continue to be paced by uncrewed missions followed up by crewed missions to ever further destinations. Major space powers continue to invest in crewed deep space exploration as an important national strategy. An improved model based on previous work is developed, which projects the earliest possible launch dates for human-crewed missions from cis-lunar space to selected destinations in the Solar System and beyond based on NASA's historic budget trend and overall development trends of deep space exploration research. The purpose of the analysis is to provide a projected timeframe for crewed missions beyond Mars. Our findings suggest the first human missions from a spacefaring nation or international collaboration to the Asteroid Belt and Jovian System could be scheduled as soon as ~2071 to ~2087 and ~2101 to ~2121, respectively, while a launch to the Saturn System may occur by the year ~2132, with an uncertainty window of ~2129 to ~2153.

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