NASA Opens Doors For Asteroid Capture Ideas, Offering $6M For Possible Future Missions

by Elizabeth Howell on March 25, 2014

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

An astronaut retrieves a sample from an asteroid in this artist's conception. Credit: NASA

An astronaut retrieves a sample from an asteroid in this artist’s conception. Credit: NASA

Got some ideas about how to snag an asteroid? NASA has just announced $6 million in opportunities for its asteroid retrieval initiative, which would see astronauts explore one of these space rocks in the 2020s if the agency receives budgetary approval to go through with the idea.

First proposed in the 2014 fiscal year budget (which has yet to be approved by Congress), the agency is moving forward with the idea by getting ideas from industry about the best way to approach the asteroid, capture it, and other priority areas. Up to 25 proposals will be selected.

The announcement comes just ahead of a one-day conference to (in part) gather public ideas for the mission. For those who weren’t able to snag one of the sold-out seats, NASA is offering virtual attendance at the forum. Follow the instructions at this page and then make a note of the program schedule on Wednesday.

In NASA’s words, these are the topics that are priority areas for solicitation:

  • Asteroid capture system concepts including using deployable structures and autonomous robotic manipulators;
  • Rendezvous sensors that can be used for a wide range of mission applications including automated rendezvous and docking and asteroid characterization and proximity operations;
  • Commercial spacecraft design, manufacture, and test capabilities that could be adapted for development of the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle (ARV);
  • Studies of potential future partnership opportunities for secondary payloads on either the ARV or the SLS;
  • Studies of potential future partnership opportunities for the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission, or other future missions, in areas such as advancing science and in-situ resource utilization, enabling commercial activities, and enhancing U.S. exploration activities in cis-lunar space after the first crewed mission to an asteroid.

“NASA is developing two mission concepts for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM): one concept uses a robotic spacecraft to capture a whole small near-Earth asteroid, and the second concept uses largely the same robotic spacecraft to capture a cohesive mass from a larger asteroid,” the agency added in the solicitation documents.

Artist's conception of NASA's asteroid retrieval mission. Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Credit: NASA

“In both mission concepts, the asteroid mass would be redirected into a stable orbit around the Moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) would rendezvous with the captured asteroid mass in lunar orbit and collect samples for return to Earth.”

The agency is framing this initiative as a way to prepare for longer-duration missions (such as going to Mars) as well as better characterizing the threat from asteroids — which is certainly on many people’s minds after a meteor broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia just over a year ago.

More information on the initiative is available at this NASA webpage, and you can read the solicitation documents at this link.


Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

philw1776 March 25, 2014 at 12:31 PM

I view this as an expensive stunt to justify the expen$ive budget crippling Orion & SLS developments with a mission. I hope to be able to retract this statement in future years.

FarAwayLongAgo March 25, 2014 at 2:05 PM

0.006 $bn, a third of a thousand of the NASA budget, is quite reasonable to put into a crazy study like this. Who knows, maybe someone who is very creative could come up with some purpose with it?

>”The agency is framing this initiative as a way to prepare for longer-duration missions (such as going to Mars) as well as better characterizing the threat from asteroids”

No, it cannot be! Towing a meteoroid to Lunar orbit and sending a micro gravity EVA crew there, as a preparation for going to Mars??? Wow! Then what next? Making a crater on Venus as a preparation for going to Mars? ANYTHING, except actually going to Mars, it seems…

A tiny meteroid a fraction of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid has nothing to do with anything related with either mining or planetary defence. NASA’s meteoroid detreval mission is totally worthless from all perspectives. And it will most likely never happen. Hopefully not even Congress is crazy enough to approve of it.

Marsbug March 26, 2014 at 6:31 AM

We’ve discovered so much about the chemical evolution leading up to the origins of life, the conditions of the early solar system, and the materials and processes that led to the creation of the planets, through studies of meteorites and the little material we have collected from asteroids to date. Imagine all we could learn about the origin of life and the Earth from the study of a whole cabanaceous asteroid, never touched by Eartths environment.
I can’t agree that this mission would be worthless. And, given the attitude of the US government to spaceflight, and their determination to cut funding for government spaceflight, it has other advantages, such as being cheap enopugh, and a small enough target for poltiticians looking for high profile buidget cuts, that it may actually happen. It will also be a number of firsts: first time anyione has delibrately changed the orbit of a solar system object, first manned visit to an asteroid.
A massive manned Mars exploration effort might indeed uncover evidence of extant or ancient alien life there. Yet even a flags ‘n’ footprint (scientifically of less worth) mission seems to be a horrifically expensive, overly complex and risky, pipe dream. In an era of dwindling budgets and a risk adverse nation it simply won’t happen. Hoping for it and chasing after it is waste of time. Worse, it leads to knocking down of more do-able ideas tht might lead to renewed publicity, enthusiasm, and funding for manned space exploration. Or, continue to chase the ever-twenty-years-distant dream of a Mars landing.

Watch and see what happens….

FarAwayLongAgo March 26, 2014 at 7:41 AM

I’m not sure that a tiny 7 meter diameter meteoroid is representative for the large asteroids which shaped Earth’s surface. The meteoroid redirect mission will take as long time and cost as much as a human landing on Mars would. Sure, it would give some knew knowledge. But it cannot be *the* manned flight mission of our generation.

Visions create budgets. With 0.5% of the federal budget it is political will which is lacking, not money in society. That rock around the Moon thing is uninspiring and will only motivate further budget cuts. NASA will then end up “retrieving” a meteorite from a lake in Siberia by truck.

Marsbug March 26, 2014 at 9:30 AM

A well chosen asteroid would be representative of an entire asteroid class, and might well also be a representative sample of the pre biotic material that went towards the formation of life. The figures I’ve seen for the asteroid redirection are that the unmanned probe would reach the asteroid n 2019, and a manned rendezvous would happen around 2021. Those will slip, inevitably, but so would any figures for a Mars landing. The cost is estimated as around 2.6 billion USD. I expect that will also slip, but not to anything like as high as the lowest estimate of a manned Mars landing. I initially got these figures from here:
but there are any number of articles I’ve googled up on the subject quoting similar figures and schedules.

A manned Mas landing is expected to cost at least what the ISS has to date, which is over 100 billion USD. I’ve not heard of any estimate below the 75 billion mark that hasn’t been dismissed out of hand as totally unrealistic or insanely risky. I’ve heard of some as low as 20 billion, and one at 6 billion that has been derided as total fantasy by almost everyone who’s gone over it (I’ll try to find them). And the schedule is largely agreed to be sometime in the late 2020′s to mid 2030′s, which, given the four year election cycle and current political climate, all adds up to never. A change in administration or a n economic downturn will scupper it before it can ever get going.

Visions don’t produce budgets on the scale needed to land on mars. Only a serious and urgent geopolitical need does that, as happened with apollo. I applaud the ambition of pushing for a Mars landing, and I agree the drama and PR value for space exploration would be much higher than an asteroid rendezvous. But governments simply won’t pay for it, or be seen to take the kinds of risks it would need, and we will end up with another project constellation, where a front of an effort to reach mars is used for poltical ends, gets everyones’ hopes up, and is discarded. This is a real danger to the future of Manned space flight. Yet another repeat of the boom and bust cycle, in this current climate, could be disastrous for the public image of NASA and MSF.

Or, we could have a long term resource in lunar orbit, which can be easily visited by government and private, manned and unmanned, missions alike. The knowledge which we could glean from it could give us information how life began, how the solar system formed, and what it formed from.
No, it’s not as sexy as a Mars landing, no it won’t bring the big find – evidence of alien life – about in our lifetimes. But neither will a manned Mars landing, because right now it’s not going to happen, and if it did it would be flags and footprints mission. It could well lead to a repeat of Apollo, where a manned landing series leaves the impression of having been there and done that, when there is still masses more to learn, and many questions unanswered.

The asteroid rendezvous would be an inspiring technical achievement at least. It would contribute bucket loads of great science, and given the likely budget and timetable it might actually be politically and financially doable.

That’s not as sexy, as world shaking, or as ambitious as Mars, but it is way, way, way better than another failed ‘vision’ or ‘initiative’ that further damages the credibility of NASA, US space exploration, and manned spaceflight itself.

But you don’t have to believe me. Neither of us is controlling the budget or direction for NASA, so I suggest we watch what happens and how it all plays out. I wouldn’t be upset if I was wrong and a manned mars mission touches down to find life in 2024!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: