Official Confirms NASA Plan to Capture an Asteroid

by Nancy Atkinson on April 6, 2013

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An artist's illustration of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft capturing a 7-meter-wide, 500-ton asteroid.  Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies.

An artist’s illustration of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft capturing a 7-meter-wide, 500-ton asteroid. Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies.

Rumors have been leaking out for over a week, but now according to Alan Boyle at NBC News’ Cosmic Log, a senior Obama administration official has confirmed that $100 million is being sought for NASA’s budget request for the coming fiscal year for work to allow a robotic spaceship to capture a small asteroid and park it near the Moon for astronauts to explore. The spacecraft would capture a 500-ton, 7- meter (25-foot) asteroid in 2019. Then using an Orion space capsule, a crew of about four astronauts would station-keep with the space rock in 2021 to allow for EVAs for exploration. This plan would accelerate NASA’s deep space missions with Orion and prepare crews for going to Mars.

NBC news quoted the official — who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the plan publicly — as saying the mission would “accomplish the president’s challenge of sending humans to visit an asteroid by 2025 in a more cost-effective and potentially quicker time frame than under other scenarios.”

A week ago, Aviation Week reported that NASA was considering this asteroid mission, which was proposed by the Keck Institute for Space Studies last year. Keck’s proposal had a price tag of $2.6 billion, but no cost estimate for the space agency’s version has yet been released.

Then on April 5, the Associated Press quoted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, Nelson, chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, that President Obama is putting $100 million in planning money for the accelerated asteroid mission in the 2014 budget that comes out next week. The money would be used to find the right small asteroid.

“It really is a clever concept,” AP quoted Nelson said in a press conference in Orlando. “Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”

This would be the first time ever an object in space of this size would be manipulated in such a manner.

In depth: A Human Mission to an Asteroid: Why Should NASA Go?

Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA’s Near Earth Object program, was quoted that while there are thousands of asteroids around 25-feet, finding the right one that comes by Earth at just the right time to be captured will not be easy. And once a suitable rock is found it would be captured with the space equivalent of “a baggie with a drawstring. You bag it. You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”

A 7- meter (25-foot) asteroid is not a threat to Earth because asteroids of that size would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

The official quoted by NBC said the plan has been under discussion for months, but after February’s meteor blast over Russia, the plan gained traction. The asteroid’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and subsequent airblast injured more than 1,000 people, and sparked discussions about asteroid threats, including a series of congressional hearings. Congressional officials said they would support more funding to counter asteroid threats.

“This plan would help us prove we’re smarter than the dinosaurs,” NBC quoted said the official, referring to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species 65 million years ago.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Kevin Frushour April 6, 2013 at 9:16 PM

I like it. It would also give us the chance to take an space body, tear it up, cut it up, mess with it, without having to worry about keeping its environment safe.

Ian McLeod April 6, 2013 at 10:21 PM

NASA rocks!

Kevin Frushour April 6, 2013 at 10:42 PM

No, orbital rocks.

Aqua4U April 6, 2013 at 10:50 PM

Will the selected asteroid be chosen due to it’s proximity to Earth? size? orbital period? or composition? All of these? Since this would be a ‘test run’ with future applications in mind, proximity would be first on the list, due to cost? Most asteroid bodies we’ve visited had an accumulation of dust on the surface – we’d have to pulse the object with a laser to burn off the dust to get a good sample? Can spectroscopy be done from a distance? If so, how far away can you be?

Olaf2 April 6, 2013 at 11:33 PM

It probably will be chosen depending the amount of fuel that would require to bring it relative close to earth.

Danny April 6, 2013 at 11:47 PM

That’s such a great idea I wonder why nobody else thought of it before.

Mastercope April 7, 2013 at 12:37 AM

Because SpaceX can do it Cheaper, Faster, no doubt it will need NASA infrastructure and Air Force resources, but it will not cost us taxpayer’s multiple of billions of dollars,,,,,,,,

Danny April 7, 2013 at 1:11 AM

Personally I’m more than OK with my tax dollars going toward awesome research like this.

Mastercope April 7, 2013 at 10:59 PM

Oh don’t get me wrong This is big awe-inspiring stuff, I am just for the mission to be handled by SpaceX infrastructure, F9H is coming and it’s sure to be a well made rocket. New engine is certified, I am just scared of a 100 billion dollar design to launch setup. Give Elon a Billion and the mission would be ready (hypothetically) in a year or two at most. To many hands in the Pot at NASA.

Olaf2 April 8, 2013 at 6:44 PM

That is the myth. Development time and resources increases exponentially when you decrease the time or increase your goals.

In the end costs will spiral out of control or you have to remove functionality to get the dead-lines.

The reason is that the costs and amount of work are always in the beginning underestimated. And SpaceX is actually lucky, it does not have to do as many R&D costs to invent new technology and techniques because a lot of their knowledge comes from NASA, ESA and the Russians.

As SpaceX will grow, more and more people will try to get their bank account filled with money intended for development. Just look around you how small successful companies became the very monster as they were fighting against. Look what happened to FaceBook and Google.

Philip Wilson April 7, 2013 at 12:01 AM

Another NASA boondoggle.
An attempt to find missions for the SLS porkbarrel and the Orion capsule. Sen Nelson and congress use NASA as a jobs program to get votes for re-election, not as a space program.

Cut the expensive SLS/Orion turkey and use some of the $ for NASA space science. Use a DARPA approach that worked so well for self-driving cars, etc. and offer prizes to the 2 or 3 best detailed feasible proposals for sampling and minutely deflecting NEOs as a proof of concept. Fund 2 winners to fly missions using SpaceX launch vehicles. They need not be manned, but if follow on missions benefit from in situ scientists, use the Dragon capsule with Bigelow inflatable tab modules. Stop the insanity.

The Latinist April 7, 2013 at 6:50 PM

As much as I hate to say it, I have to agree. Why should fly to the moon to practice techniques we could practice in LEO? And why should we tug a rock all the way to the moon and sent people to study it when a robotic probe could likely accomplish the same science? Hell, if we want people to study the asteroid, we could park it in LEO and study it within the protection of the Van Allen belts…

zkank April 7, 2013 at 7:08 PM

We’ve been studying asteroids for decades through meteorites.

This is a dumb idea that proves we’re NOT “smarter than the dinosaurs” .
That money would be better spent on worthy NASA projects recently de-funded by budget cuts.

The Latinist April 7, 2013 at 7:10 PM

I’ll take terrestrial planet finder for $6 billion, please, Alex….

Bill Marvel April 7, 2013 at 12:11 AM

IF YOU WANT TO SEE YOUR ASTEROID ALIVE AGAIN PUT $6 BILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS IN A BRIEFCASE AND WAIT FOR OUR CALL. DON’T CALL THE COPS AND NO TRICKS!

Kevin Frushour April 7, 2013 at 2:54 AM

LEAVE IT AT MOUNT SHARP, MARS AND DON’T LOOK BACK! OUR COURIER IS PACKING A DRILL AND A LASER!

Chetan Chauhan April 7, 2013 at 11:47 AM

No tricks , or your office and the asteroid will meet each other Kinetically, BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Also the Chinese better start devaluing the yuan, or ELSE.

Torbjörn Larsson April 7, 2013 at 2:42 PM

Or US had better start devaluing the dollar by running up debts instead of being market competitive. China is both building a financed society and market dominance, US is neither.

Gerald McKeegan April 7, 2013 at 12:41 AM

Every time I see one of these stories about astronauts visiting an asteroid in the next 8 or 12 years, I’m driven to ask the same question: “What asteroid?” There is no known asteroid that satisfactorily meets the mission criteria.

Philip Wilson April 7, 2013 at 1:03 AM

The putative rocks designated for this mission lie mostly undiscovered. Too small to be seen unless they’re flying over Russia. Job one as you surmise will be to survey and find them. But these are details that get in the way of this fantasy mission to justify SLS and Orion.

The Latinist April 7, 2013 at 6:47 PM

But that’s exactly what we’re going to be spending $100 million on: finding a suitable rock.

Olaf2 April 8, 2013 at 6:30 PM

I bet that is is going to be a tiny asteroid that is not going to capturer the public imagination. The majority of the public probably won’t even know that the US launched a rocket to a tiny pebble.

Gene Rossi April 7, 2013 at 1:32 AM

There must be other scientific goals to achieve other than this asteroid catching plan ..

Torbjörn Larsson April 7, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Name them, else you are proposing the fallacy of False choice.

ChopperWalker April 7, 2013 at 1:52 AM

First Iraq for oil, now spaceraq for minerals. At least we are consistent.

Torbjörn Larsson April 7, 2013 at 2:39 PM

Sort of a cheat, since the main idea with the NEO mission wasn’t to test low gravity exploration (though handy if starting with landing on Mars moons) but to develop technology for making long term, trans-lunar missions. It is doubtful if it will “accelerate” the missions since these objects may be as rare for a catch mission as the direct-NEO objects were. It is duly noted that the official is correct: “potentially quicker”.

That said, current non-governmental plans of a Mars encounter may take up the slack. And it plays well with the asteroid deflection work, as well as Mars moon missions.

Not described here but elsewhere is that at the same time the administration has postponed indefinitely visiting the Moon and/or a Moon EM2 waystation. The later would have gone hand in hand with this, developing large solar propulsion engines as well as being helpful for both asteroid processing and trans-lunar missions.

This is, because of the unnecessary deletion of potential pathways, taking the Inflexible Path.

lcrowell April 7, 2013 at 3:05 PM

This is worth some scientific research. I am not sure how practical it will be in the near future to actually mine asteroids. However, this is worthwhile before we might consider Mars, which will require much more serious power and propulsion systems than chemical rockets.

LC

Me April 7, 2013 at 3:43 PM

There is so much good & brave actions happening in our science world. From finding a way capturing a comet/asteroid. To a new laser, through telecommunication technology at the U. of Southhampton. It is the next generation to be use at the LHC or ‘any’ particle acccelerator for that matter. This new laser will have 10 thousand & more fibre laser arrays. I just am so captivated by the way these scientists come together to collaborate their brilliant minds to gravitate to one whole complete system. Bless them all.

SAM223 April 7, 2013 at 7:40 PM

Seems to me it would be far better to place an instrument package on this puppy then let it go it’s merry way. We could then hitch a ride all over the solar system and get mass quantities of information and fantastic pictures! As a matter of fact, we should “tag” all asteroids and comets that come close to us. That information would be priceless and we would also know where it is at all times.
Just saying—-.

Olaf2 April 7, 2013 at 8:19 PM

This is one of the cool sounding ideas that can’t work in reality.
You need the exact same amount of fuel to catch up with that asteroid as you would just take the same orbit and fly without asteroid. And it is much less complicated and requires less fuel when you do not land an an asteroid when you want to fly through the solar system.

Din Sel April 7, 2013 at 10:37 PM

If the “tag” on these asteroids does not have its own power source it will be useless. If it does, how do you suppose we power it?
Batteries will not last too long. Solar Power will require a big Solar panel. A little nuclear battery for each “tag”?

SAM223 April 8, 2013 at 3:00 AM

Ah. Well, there is that. Necessity is the mother of invention. There is always a way. Just have to wrap our collective minds around the problem. Perhaps a very modern battery that holds up the best coupled with a small solar panel. The “tag” just sends out very short bursts of information, say one a day for 30 seconds or something like that. Technology will find a way. It always does.
The point is that this would be very worth the effort. Another thing; a large payload of many hundreds of these small “tags” could be placed in geo-sync. orbit and just fly over to whatever is going buy at the time. Might take years to tag just a few, but, at least they are already up there and waiting. I have faith in our abilities to do marvelous things. What the heck, each “tag’ could be sponsored by some corporation or individual or club or ?? Even have their stupid little logo on it if they want, at extra cost of course. Heck, I’d pay for something like that.

StealthFlyer April 8, 2013 at 4:07 AM

The radioisotope thermoelectric generators (basically nuclear batteries) powering the Voyager probes have been working since 1977 and are expected to continue providing electrical power for another ten years or more.

Olaf2 April 7, 2013 at 8:21 PM

A human mission to an asteroid is not mind capturing. The majority is not going to be interested if you land on something that they cannot even see with a telescope because it is so small. The moon on the other hand is something different. You can point your finger at it ans say: “Son there are people walking on it right now.”

Din Sel April 7, 2013 at 10:33 PM

NBC news quoted the official — who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the plan publicly — as saying the mission would “accomplish the president’s challenge of sending humans to visit an asteroid by 2025 in a more cost-effective and potentially quicker time frame than under other scenarios.”

So basically if NASA cant go to an Asteroid, then make the Asteroid come to you. Nice little cheat. But how will that help them get the necessary technology and test it for a future trip to Mars?

NASA asked for £100 million for this. The money must be really tight. The official is right, with this approach you could certainly claim “Mission Done”, for Obama’s request for a Mission to an Asteroid without asking for too much money.

I will not be too critical of this mission like some people here. The technology developed for capturing a 500 Ton asteroid, and bringing it to within Moons gravity well, will then be passed on to the Private Sector in their quest to mine asteroids for valuable minerals.

I do think it would be better though if they could bring the Asteroid to Low Earth Orbit, and then once NASA its done with its own experiments. It can let other come in and test heir asteroid mining technology, as well as technology for bringing those minerals down to Earths surface.

David Sharp April 8, 2013 at 4:44 AM

Screw this. On to Mars.

Ron Davison April 8, 2013 at 11:02 AM

There is a private company – Planetary Resources (http://www.planetaryresources.com/) that is already working on the same idea. It will be interesting to see who gets their asteroid first.

Johnny Velocity April 8, 2013 at 2:40 PM

I’m sure no one in the government considered how easily this will be weaponized.

DarkGnat April 8, 2013 at 6:42 PM

1. Any asteroid small enough to be bagged would be too small to survive re-entry.

2. Such an object would be rather easy to spot once in LEO.

3. It would be cheaper to use existing attack methods.

DarkGnat April 8, 2013 at 6:37 PM

1. Land On Asteroid, establish mining facility.

2. Use mined resources to build new spacecraft in orbit. Make them modular and install whatever electronics/propulsion/power/etc systems are needed.

3. ?????

4. Profit!

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