Several missions in NASA's Discovery Program focus on the small, primitive bodies we know as comets, asteroids and dwarf planets. But why all the effort? Why should we devote time, effort and money to exploring them and what does it have to do with you?
Keys to the Past
The small worlds of our solar system conceal answers to some of the most pressing questions about our own origins. How did our Sun's family of planets, moons and small bodies originally form? How did our solar system evolve into the diverse collection of worlds we see today? How did life begin on Earth, and could the same processes have allowed life to get a foothold on other worlds?
At the very beginning of our solar system, before there was an Earth, Jupiter or Pluto, a massive swirling cloud of dust and gas circled the young Sun. The dust particles in this disk collided with each other and formed into larger bits of rock. This process continued until they reached the size of boulders. Eventually this process of accretion formed the planets of our solar system.
Billions of small space rocks never evolved. Amazingly, many of these mysterious worlds have been altered very little in the 4.6 billion years since they first formed. Their relatively pristine state makes the comets, asteroids, and dwarf planets wonderful storytellers with much to share about what conditions were like in the early solar system. They can reveal secrets about our origins, chronicling the processes and events that led to the birth of our world. They might offer clues about where the water and raw materials that made life possible on Earth came from. Comets and asteroids probably delivered some of the water and other ingredients that allowed the complex chemistry of life to begin on Earth. The amino acid glycine was discovered in the comet dust returned to Earth by the Stardust mission. Glycine is used by living organisms to make proteins. The discovery supports the theory that some of life's ingredients formed in space and were delivered to Earth long ago by meteorite and comet impacts.
Like forensic detectives, scientists follow clues about what happened when the solar system was young to piece together the story of our origins. What we learn will also teach us about systems of planets around other stars, and how life might develop there as well.
Resources for the Future
We also explore small worlds to understand the hazards and resources in the solar system that will affect human expansion in space. As we venture outward from our home planet, what kinds of challenges will we face?
Might we find new sources of raw materials and natural resources that we could use on Earth? Could humans use asteroids or comets as refueling stations someday? Might we find new, cleaner energy sources in space to help protect our environment?
What is the future habitability of Earth? Studying the small worlds will give us a better understanding of the solar system forces and processes that affect our future at home and enhance our ability to assess suitable locales for future human exploration. Examples of global climate change in the solar system can help us to model Earth's long-term climate.
Protection from Potential Impacts
Impacts are a process in the solar system that are capable of ending life as well as advancing it. These cosmic collisions are as natural as rain, although they happened a lot more often when the solar system was young. Scientists believe stray objects or fragments from earlier collisions slammed into Earth in the past, playing a major role in the evolution of our planet.
With increasing regularity, scientists are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits, ones that take them close to Earth and the Sun. Very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, but the more we know and understand about them, the better prepared we will be to take appropriate measures if one is heading our way. Knowing the size, shape, mass, composition and structure of these objects will help determine the best way to divert a space rock found to be on an Earth-threatening path. Missions to comets and asteroids provide valuable information about their composition and structure, helping scientists assess the best methods to deal with those in potentially hazardous orbits.
By immediately tracking potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, we have more time to study potentially threatening situations. NASA's Near Earth Object Program was established in 1998 to coordinate NASA-sponsored efforts to detect, track and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that could approach the Earth.