A plan first advanced by the Keck Institute and presented publicly by former astronaut and Fox News contributor Tom Jones to capture a small asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit seems to be finding favor at NASA, according to the New Scientist.
Capture an asteroid
The idea is that NASA would send a vehicle consisting of a capture bag about 10 by 15 meters in diameter and propel it to an asteroid, likely about seven meters in diameter, with a solar electric ion thruster, perhaps along the lines of the NEXT now being tested by NASA. The New Scientist reports that the vehicle would capture the asteroid inside the bag and propel it into lunar orbit in a voyage that would take six to 10 years. Once the small asteroid is in lunar orbit, it could be explored and even mined by robots and astronauts at leisure. The total cost would by about $2.6 billion, about the same as the Mars Curiosity rover.
Might make a voyage to an asteroid unnecessary
A recent report by the National Research Council suggested that there is little if any support for President Obama's scheme to send astronauts to an asteroid in 2025. Capturing and bringing an asteroid to cis-lunar space could fulfill many of the objectives of such a mission at a smaller cost. Not only would an asteroid be close at hand to examine, but invaluable practice would be garnered for diverting and directing an asteroid just in case one was detected on collision course with Earth. The mission might further commercial space development if done through a company like Planetary Resources, which is planning just such a scheme for profit. The only objective that capturing rather than going to an asteroid would not accomplish is a deep space voyage by astronauts as a practice run for going to Mars.
An asteroid could serve as an anchor for NASA's deep space station
The New Scientist suggests that a captured asteroid could serve as an anchor for the deep space station NASA is contemplating, to be located at the Earth/moon Lagrange 2 point over the lunar farside. This would be especially true if, as suggested by Jones, the asteroid had resources like water that could be mined and could prove useful for the crew of the deep space station. Such a space station would support both deep space missions to Mars and exploration of the lunar surface.
A dissenting view
Keith Cowing, writing at NASA Watch, takes exception to the idea of bringing an asteroid closer to Earth. He points out that the primary purpose of a mission to an asteroid, besides the science, is to practice going to Mars. He suggests, somewhat sarcastically, "Who knows: maybe (NASA Administrator) Charlie Bolden wants to bring Mars closer to Earth to cut down on travel time."
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. 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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