London, Nov 25 : A new report by a high-level panel of experts has praised the idea of sending NASA astronauts to visit a nearby asteroid.
According to New Scientist, the US National Research Council (NRC) report, titled "Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA's Constellation System," was written by a committee chaired by George Paulikas, a retired executive for the Aerospace Corporation, a think tank based in El Segundo, California.
The report has high praise for a proposal to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid, or near-Earth object (NEO).
"The most compelling rationale for a human NEO mission is for its value as an intermediate step between lunar exploration and interplanetary travel, to prove new hardware and to maintain the momentum of the human exploration program by showing sustained progress," the report said.
The panel judged the science return from such a mission to be less interesting than from other proposals it considered, so did not put it in the highest-priority category for further study on that basis.
But, it urged NASA's Exploration division, which is responsible for human space missions, to give the idea further thought.
"It was very compelling in the sense of exploration, but that wasn't part of the criteria we were given," panel co-chair and former shuttle astronaut Kathryn Thornton told New Scientist.
The praise for the human asteroid mission comes hot on the heels of a policy paper by the Planetary Society of Pasadena, California, US, which urged NASA to defer Moon landings in favour of other possibilities, including a human mission to an asteroid.
The report also recommends ambitious robotic missions that would be possible with next-generation rockets, but warns that the missions could come with big price tags.