Aviation Week is reporting that when President Barack Obama's 2014 budget is finally rolled out, it will contain a $100 million line item in the NASA account to start the ball rolling to capture and retrieve an asteroid.
Instead of going to an asteroid, bringing one closer to Earth
The idea of a mission to capture and retrieve an asteroid was first advanced by the Keck Institute in April 2012. The idea would be to send a robot, consisting of an electric propulsion unit and a capture bag, to capture an Earth-approaching asteroid of about 500 tons and seven meters in diameter and moving it to a safe high orbit around the moon by 2025. Then the asteroid could be visited at leisure by astronauts flying in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle launched by the Space Launch System. Such a mission, which would cost $2.65 billion according to Aviation Week, and would provide a synergy between robotic and human exploration systems.
Rationale: Defense against asteroids
Because of the recent meteor incident over Russia, more attention is being focused on the idea of defending the Earth against asteroid impacts. According to Space Politics, a recent Senate hearing on the subject featured references to Bruce Willis and the film "Armageddon," which concerned an emergency space mission to blow up an asteroid that was threatening the Earth. The proposed NASA mission to capture and divert an asteroid would demonstrate that the sort of explosions that usually appear in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie will not be necessary to spare the Earth of a rocky threat from the heavens.
Rationale: Asteroid resources
Not coincidentally, the proposed NASA mission to an asteroid comes at a time when two private companies are planning to use asteroids to mine them for resources. Both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have plans that are similar to the NASA mission, to capture and divert an asteroid. The NASA mission might serve as a test run for such an operation, proving that it would be feasible.
As a substitute to a mission to an asteroid
Almost three years after President Obama first proposed to send human explorers to an asteroid as a substitute for a return to the moon, the National Research Council found that there was little support for such a mission, either inside NASA or among the general public. Snagging an asteroid and putting it in orbit around the moon would satisfy almost all the requirements for an asteroid mission, except for a practice run for deep-space missions to Mars. It also might support a return to the moon by putting in place a resource-rich asteroid in ready reach on the lunar surface, however.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker. and Dreams of Barry's Stepfather. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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