NASA Getting into the Asteroid-Moving Business

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NASA Getting into the Asteroid-Moving Business
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In a 2012 photo, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson inspects an Orion capsule of the kind that may someday carry …

Dissatisfied with the current state of the solar system, NASA is looking to do a little remodeling.

The space agency is angling to capture a small asteroid and drag it closer to Earth for human exploration, the Associated Press reported April 6. The Obama administration's proposed budget for 2014 will include $100 million to kick off the project, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, told reporters. Nelson's statements confirmed a March report in Aviation Week about the mission.

The idea is to accelerate human exploration of the solar system, particularly the bodies that have never seen human visitors--namely, everywhere except Earth and the moon. Back in 2010, President Obama announced his intention to send human explorers to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s. According to the AP, under the new plan a robotic craft would snag a yet to be-selected asteroid in 2019 and return it to the vicinity of the moon for a human spacewalking mission two years later.

The plan builds on a proposal examined in a 2012 report from the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology. In that report, an expert group estimated that a robotic probe could capture a seven-meter, 500,000-kilogram asteroid and haul it back to lunar orbit for exploration by 2025. That alone would cost about $2.6 billion, according to the KISS report (pdf), but somehow the version of the plan described to NBC News by an anonymous Obama administration source would do the same thing four years faster for less than half the cost. (Magic 8-Ball says: "Don't Count on It.")

Details aside, what's the point of going to an asteroid? The KISS report highlights a few justifications, including the planetary science benefits of the first asteroid "dissection," as well as the planetary defense benefit of anchoring to an asteroid, which may someday prove useful if a space rock is found to be on a dangerous trajectory and needs to be rerouted. What is more, an asteroid mission could open the door to the spaceborne extraction of precious materials, as has been proposed by Planetary Resources, Inc. (which bills itself as "The Asteroid Mining Company").

But the real advantage of asteroid exploration is that astronauts could simply sidle up to a small space rock without the need for a costly, complex landing module, as is required to negotiate the gravitational pull of a larger body such as Mars or the moon. The downside is that the idea of an asteroid mission has hardly stoked the passion of the public since it was first announced three years ago. And it is hard to imagine a spacewalking exploration of a dusty little rock with a name like 2008 EV5 garnering the same excitement as a mission to an object that looms large in the night sky and in our imagination.

In his remarks to reporters, Nelson called the asteroid mission "a clever concept." One of my esteemed colleagues calls it "batsh*t crazy." I'd say it's somewhere in between. On one hand, it does feel a bit like "make-work," as my colleague put it--creating a destination just so we have somewhere to go. On the other hand, no human being has left low Earth orbit in 40 years. And if it's an asteroid expedition that breaks that drought, I'll take it.

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