Part of Space Station Could Carry Crew to an Asteroid, NASA Says
This NASA concept image shows the International Space Station's Tranquility module (Node 3) at the center of two exploration spacecraft that could be sent to visit a nearby asteroid.
Credit: NASA/Brian Wilcox [Full Story]

WASHINGTON ? ?A room on the International Space Station could ultimately be converted and detached to carry astronauts on their next great adventure, to an asteroid, NASA scientists say.

The space station's Tranquility module, known as Node 3, could be repurposed as the main living space for humans headed to a nearby asteroid, NASA officials said. The node could be connected to two space exploration vehicles and have add-on inflatable modules. [Concept photo of the asteroid mission.]

"There's no new ideas under the sun," said Brian Wilcox, a roboticist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He said NASA "Blue Sky" group had focused on repurposing technologies for new missions during a brainstorming session this year.

Wilcox discussed the proposal during NASA's two-day workshop on near-Earth objects, which concludes here Wednesday.

The space station is slated to operate through at least 2020, which roughly coincides with the earliest likely launch date for human exploration of an asteroid. In April President Barack Obama set a 2025 goal for a manned mission to an asteroid.

The Node 3 module is one of the newer rooms on the International Space Station. It is nearly 24 feet (7.3 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide, about the size of a small bus.

Node 3 was delivered by a NASA space shuttle in February and currently is home to the Cupola observation deck, a seven-window dome that gives astronauts a panoramic view of space to operate the outpost's robotic arm. The module also is home to much of the space station's life support equipment and some astronaut bedrooms, berths about the size of a phone booth.

But for the asteroid mission concept, Node 3 could be detached and outfitted with two space exploration vehicles, each having a pressurized cabin that could typically carry two astronauts (or four in an emergency).

Inflatable structures similar to those proposed by space hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow also could launch within existing rockets and expand the usable living or working quarters.

The interior of the node would see major makeovers.

A spinning centrifuge device installed within the node might create artificial gravity to help astronauts stave off muscle and bone loss, Wilcox said. The space station currently does not have such a device.