Animation of NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission
Wait a minute, let me rub my eyes again. It looks like we’re about to take the first step toward retrieving an asteroid. NASA’s proposed 2014 budget includes $78 million to begin an amazing undertaking: send an unmanned ship to a 16-23 foot (5-7 meters) near-Earth asteroid, bag it and then ferry it to a stable lunar orbit where astronauts can visit and explore the catch.
In January I wrote about NASA’s Keck Institute for Space Studies proposal to do exactly this. At the time, it sounded feasible but far, far off in the future. In the current proposal, a solar electric powered craft would be launched to an as-yet-identified small asteroid in 2017, rendezvous and capture it in 2019 and tow it back to the Earth’s vicinity in 2021.
Astronauts using the newly-developed Orion crew vehicle would make the short flight to examine the space rock close up and remove samples for study in 2021. Time-wise, that’s just around the corner!
Besides the scientific bonanza of having an asteroid to study at close range, the mission would develop the technologies and capabilities required if in the future there is a need to move a hazardous asteroid. Sounds like a good investment. We’re always talking about what we’ll do if an asteroid is discovered with Earth in its sights.
If Congress approves the request, the current robotic mission can begin, but an estimated $2.6 billion will be necessary to see it through to completion. Them’s no small potatoes, so we’ll need to temper our optimism for the moment. Still, this would be a critical first step in the potential preservation of the species. Just FYI, NASA’s share of the federal budget is 0.5% or half a penny for every dollar spent.
During the years prior to a potential launch of the probe, observatory sky surveys like Pan-STARRS would identify the target asteroid and map its orbit with great precision. The spacecraft would be launched in 2017, rendezvous with the space rock and use an expandable bag to enclose it. Once inside, the asteroid would have to be stabilized by de-spinning it before the probe could return to the moon-Earth vicinity. Everything spins in space, even the smallest rocks.
Meanwhile, funding and development of the new and powerful Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft would proceed apace so that by 2021, when the asteroid would be ready for visitors, the mission would be a go.