NASA is working on sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2030, goals that were outlined in 2010’s NASA Authorization Act and the U.S. National Space Policy. Researchers are interested in Mars because its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s and it once had conditions that could have supported life. What would have made a habitable planet less so? Similarly, did Mars once support life, even if it was nothing more than bacteria? And the age-old question: Is there life beyond Earth?
To learn the answers to these questions, NASA is using the International Space Station as a proving ground to test many of the technologies and communications equipment needed for deep space exploration. Researchers can also study the effects of a prolonged stay in space on the human body.
NASA’s next step will be to use robots to capture an asteroid and redirect it to orbit the moon. This might take some time to develop, but Tom Rothman likes where they are heading. They will then send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft to explore the asteroid sometime in the 2020’s. This mission will enable NASA to test new systems and technologies like the Solar Electric Propulsion that will be needed for any human missions to Mars.
There are already robotic probes on Mars like the Curiosity, which is gathering data on radiation and sending it back to NASA, which will then use it to devise ways to protect astronauts living there.