No kidding, we might just grab, bag and drag an asteroid to Earth

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.

The asteroid retrieval mission would capture a small space rock in an expandable bag, cinch it shut, de-spin the object and return it to a stable orbit around the moon. Credit: NASA

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.

Artist’s conception of the Orion crew vehicle orbiting Earth. Credit: NASA

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!

Once ready to retrieve, a bag would unfold accordion-style and pocket the asteroid. It would cinch tight on the open end before ferrying the object back toward Earth. Credit: NASA

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.

In NASA’s proposal, astronauts would take the Orion craft to the asteroid in 2021, part the bag and examine it up close. Credit: NASA

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.

Timeline for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission proposal. It starts with a careful survey of the sky for an appropriate candidate. The asteroid would ideally be relatively near Earth. Click for larger view. Credit: NASA

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.

7 thoughts on “No kidding, we might just grab, bag and drag an asteroid to Earth

  1. The technology for asteriod capture could be adapted for all sorts of uses. Think of all those early-space program probes that went into solar orbit. Those Apollo-era Saturn V third stages that are in solar orbit could be recaptured. From a materials-science perspective, it could yield some great insights for long-duration space missions.

  2. Very cool. It’s not a manned mission to Mars, but it has commercial (asteroid mining) and existential (preventing a large asteroid strike on Earth) benefits that could make it doable…even during the decade of deficit.

  3. On the other hand, while promising to help civilization avoid world-destroying asteroids, asteroid-manipulation technology is at the same time the ultimate doomsday technology. The Empire in Star Wars didn’t need to build the Death Star, but only this little asteroid-moving satellite! Fortunately, the expense and know-how for North Korea to build it are out of reach. Imagine a scenerio in the year 2050 when the DoD launches a classified payload to snag a small asteroid, moves it to earth orbit, and then uses it in a crisis like a miniature nuke to destroy a hardened bunker complex with no radiation effects. However, such is the risk for any new technology. I think the benefits will outweigh the risks. I like the ISS and seeing it in the night sky, but I really would like to see NASA’s astronauts go places!

    • Larry,
      I suspect that on that distant date laser weapon technology will do the job without radiation. Let’s hope we don’t use that either. I agree with you about NASA sending astronauts but like a balanced approach with robotic missions. Too bad there’s rarely money to do both well.

  4. Hello Bob,
    first of all I have to say I really love your site. I’m always excited to hear in-depth news about astronomy or see some nice aurora or in general space pictures.

    If I understood right then US government only uses 0.5 percent of their budget on NASA which I find very disappointing. Governments all over the world use most of their budgets to finance improvements in war technology and other ways to be the government that has the most to say. If only we all could get along and concentrate on aiming beyond the stars, looking for ways to explore the depths of space. We would be centuries ahead in terms of technology and science, if we all worked together…

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