The Obama administration’s budget includes $105 million for an audacious new mission for NASA: capturing a small asteroid and moving it to a location near the moon so astronauts can study it.
The newly announced mission seeks to improve the detection of dangerous small asteroids while coming up with a destination for crewed deep space flights. It will also demonstrate strategies for moving space rocks that could threaten life on earth.
In February an undetected 10,000 ton meteor roughly 15 meters in diameter injured over a thousand people in Russia after it slammed into the atmosphere at over 40,000 miles per hour. The resulting explosion was measured at approximately 500 kilotons and could have leveled a major city had it not been on a relatively shallow trajectory.
NASA’s new mission plan calls for the targeting of an asteroid roughly half the size of the Russian meteor, an effort NASA officials hope will lead to new advances in detection technology. Once a suitable rock is chosen, a specialized robotic spacecraft will be sent to intercept the asteroid and move it into orbit near the moon utilizing a new, solar powered ion thruster engine currently in development.
“The ambitious mission to rendezvous, capture and redirect a small asteroid to Earth-moon space could not be accomplished without solar electric propulsion technology. This technology also will support the commercial telecommunications and satellite industries, and is an essential step toward future NASA human and robotic exploration forays into deep space,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Michael Gazarik.
The plan would then make use of the new multi-billion dollar deep space vehicles currently in development to send astronauts to the asteroid to capture samples and return them to earth. The spacecraft include the new massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion crew capsule. NASA is currently modifying its infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center to prepare for the new vehicles. A Connecticut native is leading the team developing Orion’s navigational systems.
“This asteroid initiative brings together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025,” said NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, “We will use existing capabilities such as the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and develop new technologies like solar electric propulsion and laser communications—all critical components of deep space exploration.”
NASA’s preliminary plan is to have astronauts touching the asteroid by late 2021 with the target chosen by 2016. Orion will fly its first unmanned test flight next year, followed by another unmanned flight beyond the moon in 2017.