Apocalypse Avoided? Fed Budget Funds NASA Mission To Capture Asteroid

asteroid Mathilde
253 Mathilde, a C-type asteroid measuring about 50 kilometres (30 mi) across, covered in craters half that size. Photograph taken in 1997 by the NEAR Shoemaker probe. Image Credit: NASA

The spate of recent near-Earth asteroid ‘fly-bys’, along with the recent (and sensational) Russian meteor explosion, has heightened public awareness of these random space-based threats and prompted public calls for action.

Some space agencies, research institutes, and private space sector companies have stepped tentatively into the asteroid-apocalypse-prevention arena — at least the “ideas” phase — with promises to investigate possibilities (e.g., “sentries”) for stopping a real-life “Armageddon”.

In January, ESA and Johns-Hopkins Institute announced plans to design an “asteroid intercept” mission (though they are still seeking and exploring specific research ideas for a would-be mission), and just recently, NASA announced plans to “capture an asteroid” — and re-orbit it safely away from Earth — at a time when its budget is being clipped.There are still doubts that such a project will be approved in such a fiscally ‘austere” moment in US budgetary history.

The Budget List

But there’s something to be said for keeping one’s finger on the ‘pulse’ of society (or its collective fear). The Obama administration has included funding for the space rock-capturing mission, set to begin development as early 2014 but which would not be fully operational until 2017.

What’s more, the Obama budget allots the full $105 million asked for by NASA to identify a small asteroid, “capture” it, sample it, and relocate it (or redirect it) safely away from a potentially earth-bound trajectory. NASA’s current budget to (only) identify and track potential Earth-bashing asteroids is about $20 million which funds efforts like the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) team.

Both of these items are small fractions of NASA’s proposed 2014 budget of $17.7 billion (which is 1% lower than 2013). However, the Obama budget also asks for an additional $20 billion to study near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) in order to “protect the planet” — double the amount currently being spent on the effort.

Last year (2012), the Keck Institute for Space Studies conducted a study workshop on the Asteroid Return Mission concept to explore and establish “the feasibility of capturing and returning an entire near-Earth asteroid to lunar orbit by the middle of the next decade”. The workshop also sought to identify “the benefits that such an endeavor would provide to NASA, the nation, and the world.”

The study report from that Keck Institute workshop caught the attention of the White House.

A  Space Mission in Which Everybody Wins

The proposed mission may be the perfect scientific and budgetary compromise. In a 2012 speech, Obama called for a mission to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, following cancellation of plans for a more pricey moon landing mission (in preparation for building a Moon base). Meanwhile, private space sector enterprises have been clamoring (for some time) for opportunities to mine the Moon, or, failing that, to mine asteroids for their mineral content. NASA could very well out-source, or partially subsidize some of this capture-and-control mission to private space companies who presumably will have an incentive to invest likewise — if it means getting their hands on an asteroid’s metals and minerals.

NASA still gets to conduct important space science research on these still mysterious objects. They could, potentially, provide a fuel source (and way stations) for NASA’s proposed longer-distance space missions (to Mars and beyond).

How To Capture (and Relocate) An Asteroid

If the mission is funded and green-lighted, the first step would be identifying a candidate asteroid (also called a “planetoid”) — one big enough to accommodate an unmanned spacecraft, but still small enough to manage if mission scientists lose control of the rock in the process of re-locating it. If this scenario happened during a real asteroid intercept mission (which would not be good) the best that could be hoped for is that the asteroid would burn up (due to intense frictional forces) before reaching the Earth’s atmosphere (well, there’s always nuclear missiles).

Initial concepts for an intercept mission included either using the spacecraft’s own gravitational pull to alter the asteroid’s path or using the (landed) spacecraft’s engine thrust to push the rock off-course. Alternatively, and more aggressively, detonation of small-scale explosions on the space rock could push it into a different path. The latter approach is more risky in that it could possibly cause the asteroid to break up into many smaller Earth-bound projectiles (though less lethal, presumably). But in the proposed mission, a spacecraft may actually tow the planetoid into a different trajectory

“This mission allows us to better develop our technology and systems to explore farther than we ever have before … to places humanity has dreamed of for as long as I’ve been alive,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters.

Congress Set to Review Asteroid Threats

Of course, the potential fate of the world rests in the budget-axe-wielding hands of Congress (I’m confident, are you?).

However, we may not have to wait long for a preliminary word; the Space and Technology Committee of the US House of Representatives is meeting Wednesday to discuss “potential threats from space” — a meeting prompted by the recent upper atmosphere explosion of a bus-sized meteor over Russia’s Ural Mountain region (resulting in many smashed windows and injuries but no deaths).

“If the current budget is flat or declining NASA will go nowhere. This could be the dawn of space mining. We have finite resources on earth and this program might open the door for businesses interested in exploring space,” said Tom Jones*, a former NASA astronaut and current research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.”

*Jones is also a co-author of the 2012 Keck Institute asteroid report.

More About the Keck Asteroid Workshop

Along with key issues such as identifying candidate asteroids and the critical design features of the space craft, the workshop members also discussed the energy needs of any such mission, which included the use of concentrated solar power to extract asteroid resources, as well as the use of said resources for “deep-space transportation of radiation-shielded crew vehicles, and, in the case of extracted water, for example, as a propellant for high-thrust propulsion.”

If all goes according to plan, this mission could be the start of the newest chapter in our venture in to space — as we transition from mere space exploration to space exploitation.

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