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Citizens in Space


The case for Ceres


The endless debate over NASA’s next destination resembles a food fight between the Moonmen and the Mars advocates. The near Earth asteroids get no respect from either side. That lack of respect seems kind of strange, considering some near-Earth asteroids have a potential ability to destroy all life on Earth. One would expect that sort of death-dealing ability to merit at least a little respect. Nevertheless, near-Earth asteroids are ridiculed as mere “rubble piles” and any proposed visit is a “mission to nowhere.”

Ultimately, this debate is silly. The only real answer to the designation question is “All of the Above.” If we develop low-cost access to space, supporting infrastructure such as propellant depots, and deep-space exploration exploration ships like JSC’s proposed Nautilus-X, we can go anywhere in the solar system. Without such capabilities, we’re going nowhere.

Having said that, let’s play the destination game just this once. We’d like to put in a pitch for a dark horse candidate.

The main-belt asteroids are seldom mentioned as potential targets for human exploration. There’s a good reason for that. The main asteroid belt is quite a ways off – on the other side of Mars – and if one wants to visit an asteroid, there are plenty of candidates in the near-Earth zone.

One main-belt asteroid stands out as an object of interest, though: the largest of the asteroids, Ceres. In fact, some planetary scientists don’t consider Ceres an asteroid at all but a dwarf planet, which may have been formed by a different process. In either case, Ceres is definitely interesting – the sort of place NASA should consider going.

Read more: The case for Ceres

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