See This Orange Smudge? This Could Be NASA’s Target For The Asteroid Mission

In the center of the image above is an orange smudge. It may not look like much to the untrained eye, but to NASA it represents potential. It’s a candidate asteroid target for a mission the agency badly wants to happen, even though nobody knows for sure yet if things will line up for humans to visit there one day.

This is a picture of asteroid 2011 MD taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s about 6 meters (20 feet) across and appears to have a low density, the agency said in a statement. While NASA is still looking for other candidates for its asteroid initiative, the agency added this would be the sort of asteroid it’s looking to visit.

“The asteroid appears to have a structure perhaps resembling a pile of rocks, or a ‘rubble pile.’Since solid rock is about three times as dense as water, this suggests about two-thirds of the asteroid must be empty space,” NASA stated in this press release.

“The research team behind the observation says the asteroid could be a collection of small rocks, held loosely together by gravity, or it may be one solid rock with a surrounding halo of small particles.”

Artist's conception of the structure around 2011 MD, a candidate asteroid for NASA's proposed asteroid redirect mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the structure around 2011 MD, a candidate asteroid for NASA’s proposed asteroid redirect mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

You can read more about this asteroid in Astrophysical Journal Letters. There was another study done on 2011 MD earlier this year that was also in ApJL, or in preprint version in Arxiv.

Announcing this asteroid candidate was just one of several things NASA made public today. It added that it plans to send off an ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission) robotic spacecraft in 2019, and about one year before that it will decide which asteroid to send this spacecraft to.

NASA has two concept ideas for ARM, and it’s planning to award $4.9 million (it had initially planned for up to $6 million) for others to make more detailed investigations into which is the more feasible. Read the full list of recipients at this NASA website.

One idea is to pick up a small asteroid, and the other is to carve off a small portion of a bigger asteroid. Whatever the choice, it would involve coming up with an object that is less than 32 feet (10 meters) across to move to the moon’s orbit. NASA will decide what to do later this year.

“The studies will be completed over a six-month period beginning in July, during which time system concepts and key technologies needed for ARM will be refined and matured. The studies also will include an assessment of the feasibility of potential commercial partners to support the robotic mission,” NASA stated.

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

Also, some more details about other candidates: NASA has found nine so far that it deems suitable, and size estimates have been made on three of those nine candidates. A fourth, 2008 HU4, will be close to Earth in 2016 and allow for “interplanetary radar” to learn more about its size and rotation, NASA said. The other ones will not get close enough to Earth for a better look before the mission selection is done.

NASA added that it expects to add more through its Near-Earth Object program, as one to two asteroids get close enough to our planet every year for analysis. Further, the agency hopes to learn more about asteroid makeup through its planned Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, which is on its way to asteroid Bennu in 2018 after a launch in 2016.

All of this, of course, is dependent on NASA’s budgetary situation for the years to come, which in turn depends on support in Congress.

Amateur Asteroid Hunters Take Note: NASA and Slooh Will Ask For Your Help

Do you lack a telescope, but have a burning desire to look for asteroids near Earth? No problem! NASA and the Slooh telescope network will soon have you covered, as the two entities have signed a new agreement allowing citizen scientists to look at these objects using Slooh.

This is all related to NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge (which includes the agency’s desire to capture and redirect an asteroid for further study.) What the two entities want to do is show citizen astronomers how to study asteroids after they are discovered by professionals, looking at properties such as their size and rotation and light reflectivity.

Additionally, Slooh will add 10 new telescopes to the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, the facility it is using until at least 2020. The hope is to add to the total of 10,957 discovered near-Earth asteroids, which include 1,472 that are “potentially hazardous.” Astronomers believe only about 30% of the 140-meter sized asteroids near Earth have been discovered, and less than 1% of 30-meter sized asteroids. (Bigger ones more than a kilometer across are about 90% discovered.)

Screenshot from a live webcast from SLOOH Space Camera.
Screenshot from a live webcast from SLOOH Space Camera.

We talk about Slooh frequently on Universe Today because it is one of the go-to locations for live events happening in the cosmos, such as when a solar eclipse occurs. NASA also plans to work with Slooh on these live events, beginning with looking at Comet 209P/LINEAR and its meteor shower when it goes past our planet Friday (May 23).

“This partnership is a great validation of our approch to engage the public in the exploration of space,” stated Michael Paolucci, the founder and CEO of Slooh.

“NASA understands the importance of citizen science, and knows that a good way to get amateur astronomers involved is to offer them ways to do productive astronomy. Slooh does that by giving them remote access to great telescopes situated at leading observatory sites around the world.”

Sources: NASA and Slooh

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

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.

NASA: 96 Things You Can Do With an Asteroid

NASA is really getting into this crowd-sourcing thing. The space agency asked and the public responded with hundreds of ideas of what missions could be done with asteroids in regards to protecting Earth from these space rocks and finding an asteroid humans can explore. NASA received over 400 responses to their “Asteroid Initiative Request For Information” request, hearing from the space industry, universities, and the general public.

Now, after looking at all the responses, NASA has chosen 96 ideas it regards as most promising, ranging from asteroid observation plans to asteroid redirection, deflection or capture systems, to creating crowd sourcing and citizen science opportunities.

Next, NASA will host an Asteroid Initiative Idea Synthesis Workshop where NASA personnel and the space community will discuss and further these 96 ideas to narrow them down even further to help with its planning activities and future missions.
The 96 ideas were chosen by a team of NASA scientists, engineers, and mission planners who evaluated the proposed ideas. The evaluation team rated the responses for relevance to the RFI objectives, innovativeness of the idea, maturity of the development approach, and potential to improve mission affordability.

This is the first time NASA has used this type of crowd-sourcing and discussion method to look at possible future missions.

NASA said the ideas proposed “provide the agency with fresh insight into how best to identify, capture and relocate a near-Earth asteroid for closer study and respond to asteroid threats.” Ideas included pointers on how to decrease an asteroid’s spin, nudge it away from a path toward Earth, take samples to return to Earth and create activities to heighten public awareness of not only the threat asteroids pose, but the valuable resources and scientific benefits they may offer.

“This rich set of innovative ideas gathered from all over the world provides us with a great deal of information to factor into our plans moving forward,” said Robert Lightfoot, Associate Administrator for NASA. “We’re making great progress on formulating this mission, and we look forward to discussing further the responses we received to the RFI.”

The upcoming public workshop will be held on Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 and onsite participation is limited to just the presenters, but it appears the workshop will be webcast (more info later), as NASA said they will release information on virtual participation options as the workshop nears.

Source: NASA