n this artist's concept, an astronaut performs a tethering maneuver at an asteroid. The Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is close by, with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) docked to a habitat in the background. / NASA
NASA hopes to start work on a mission that could send astronauts to an asteroid within eight years, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said today.
Nelson, who heads the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA programs, said the “audacious” plan calls for a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid and tow it to a stable orbit around the moon.
Flying in an Orion capsule launched from Kennedy Space Center atop the massive Space Launch System rocket, astronauts would then have a “unique, meaningful and affordable” destination for the next decade, Nelson said.
The space agency could use the asteroid to study mining, ways to deflect the space rocks if they threatened Earth and technologies that might apply to a manned mission to Mars.
"It's really a clever concept,” Nelson said. "This is one of the building blocks of a human mission to Mars."
The Obama administration’s 2014 budget is expected to request $100 million for NASA to jump start the mission, Nelson said.
He said space scientists produced a feasibility study last year on a similar mission last year, saying it would represent “mankind’s first attempt at modifying the heavens to enable the permanent settlement of humans in space.”
NASA plans a first test launch of the SLS rocket with an unmanned Orion in 2017. The first crewed mission was to follow in 2021, but has not yet had a definite destination.
Nelson said the new proposal would accelerate the Obama administration’s goal for astronauts to visit an asteroid, which had been targeted for 2025.
No further details were immediately available on how the asteroid would be captured and how much the total mission would cost.
Nelson planned to discuss the proposal this afternoon in Orlando.
WASHINGTON — It's been a while since NASA's been known as a place for space cowboys.
But the nickname could make a comeback if the space agency can pull off a new mission that even supporters admit sounds buck-wild: corralling an asteroid with a spacecraft so future astronauts can go visit it.
Obama administration officials said the operation has the potential to jump-start a human-exploration program that has floundered since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle. The White House will include $105 million to begin work on the project in its 2014 budget to be unveiled this week.
"This mission will send humans farther than they have ever been before, and [it would be the] first ever redirection of [an] asteroid for exploration and sampling," noted NASA officials in a mission outline presented to Congress this week and obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
If lawmakers approve, the plan calls on NASA to launch an unmanned spacecraft as soon as 2017 on a mission to "capture" a small asteroid and drag it near the moon, possibly to a point roughly 277,000 miles from Earth where competing gravitational forces would allow it to "sit" there.
Astronauts, riding a new NASA rocket and capsule, then would visit the asteroid as early as 2021.
"If the American people are excited about it, they [lawmakers] will be, too," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. — adding that he thinks the public is "fascinated" with asteroids thanks to disaster movies such as "Armageddon" and recent near-misses that real space rocks have had with Earth.
But the plan faces several hurdles — and not just the rocket science.
Foremost is convincing Congress, and a skeptical public, that spending an estimated $2.6 billion on the mission is a worthwhile investment. That's in addition to the $3 billion annually that NASA already devotes to building its new Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.
Then there's the more-basic question of why.
"You have to get over the first shock, and I'm worried editorial writers will be like: 'Huh? You lost your mind,'" acknowledged Lou Friedman, who co-authored a 2012 report that suggested the idea. "But if you get into it, [the mission] is audacious as sending humans to the moon. I think it will restore confidence in America's technological capability and NASA's can-do spirit."
As proposed, the asteroid mission would begin with research — $78 million in 2014 to begin design work on the robotic spacecraft that would capture the asteroid, and an additional $27 million to begin searching the cosmos for an asteroid to grab. The ideal rock would be 20 to 30 feet in diameter and weigh 500 tons.
A 2012 study done by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, a think tank based at the California Institute of Technology, envisioned a small probe that would launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. Once in space, it would use its solar-electric engines to cruise to an asteroid and then attempt to capture it in a cup-shaped container described as an "inflatable asteroid capture bag."
Even NASA admits this stage would be the "most technically challenging aspect of the mission," as the asteroid would be traveling at thousands of miles per hour and spinning rapidly. The probe would have to first match the asteroid's speed and spin. It would then position itself so that the asteroid drifts into its storage space — and pull it shut like a drawstring bag.
"Since the asteroid would be much more massive than the spacecraft, it is perhaps better to think of this as the asteroid capturing the spacecraft," noted the Keck study.
The probe would then tug the asteroid to an orbit near the moon to await a visit by NASA astronauts. The Keck study estimated the whole operation could take six to 10 years, although NASA officials insist they can do it sooner to meet their 2021 deadline of a human mission.
By any measure, it's an ambitious operation that would test a wide variety of NASA skills — from technology development to human spaceflight.
But there's still the question of why.
From NASA's perspective, the mission checks several boxes.
First, it gives purpose to the huge new SLS rocket and Orion capsule that are costing NASA about $3 billion a year to build, with a first test flight scheduled no earlier than 2017. The SLS has been criticized as a "rocket to nowhere" — as its mission has been defined only vaguely since the program's 2011 unveiling — and the asteroid operation would give it a specific goal.
It also would meet President Barack Obama's challenge to NASA to visit an asteroid by 2025.
Finally, its estimated cost of $2.6 billion, not including the SLS and Orion, fits within NASA's long-range-budget expectations. It would be much cheaper than a manned flight to the moon's surface or a longer-range mission to an asteroid that hasn't been tugged close to the moon.
"It gives us a place to go but one we can reach with existing systems," Friedman said.
It's the kind of rationale that makes sense in the space community.
But NASA likely has some work to do in convincing the general public. Though the flight would make history, sending astronauts to a tiny asteroid lacks the punch of, say, a Mars landing.
Supporters said they understand that. But they argue that getting to Mars — or even doing more on the moon — would be impossible without intermediate steps such as this. Asteroids are "interesting objects in their own right, but the main purpose is as a stepping stone of exploration," Friedman said
Planning documents also make another case: The spacecraft developed by NASA could be a prototype of one that could defend the planet against a rogue asteroid. That's been a hot topic since a 55-foot asteroid exploded over Russia in February, injuring more than 1,000 people, and NASA acknowledged to Congress it would be helpless if a larger, more-deadly asteroid were reported on a collision course with Earth.
There's also the possibility of mining the asteroid for rare materials such as platinum. Though it's unknown whether visiting astronauts would set foot on the asteroid, it's certain any mission would recover rock samples. This could be a first step in developing techniques to mine asteroids in the future.
The rise of this program, however, likely means the death of another.
NASA chief Charlie Bolden pitched the White House last year on the idea of building a small space station near where NASA intends to drag the asteroid; administration officials said that pricey proposal has been shelved in favor of one viewed as more viable given NASA's annual budget of about $18 billion.
"We've had a succession of [human-spaceflight] missions that didn't pan out financially; it would be nice to have one that did," said Howard McCurdy, a space-policy expert at American University.
NASA has plan to capture an asteroid and tow it to the moon
The plan calls for astronauts powered by a new monster rocket to land on the asteroid in just eight years
April 5, 2013
ORLANDO - Tucked inside President Barack Obama’s proposed federal budget for next fiscal year is about $100 million to jump start a program scientists say is the next step towards humans establishing a permanent settlement in space.
That, at least, is what U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson says we’re likely to see when the White House unveils its fiscal year 2014 budget around the middle of next week. Nelson has been briefed by scientists. And NASA's decision to ask for funding for the project was first reported by Aviation Week magazine in an article published last week.
In a nutshell, the plan in NASA’s hands calls for catching an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft and towing it back toward Earth, where it would then be placed in a stable orbit around the moon.
Next, astronauts aboard America’s Orion capsule, powered into space by a new monster rocket, would travel to the asteroid where there could be mining activities, research into ways of deflecting an asteroid from striking Earth, and testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.
“This is part of what will be a much broader program,” Nelson said today, during a visit in Orlando. “The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars.”
It was Nelson (D-FL) with former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who won passage in Congress in 2010 for funding plans to build a new monster rocket – called SLS - capable of carrying the Orion spacecraft and for or more astronauts out of low-Earth orbit and to the far side of the moon. The U.S. hasn’t had the ability to do what this new rocket will do - go far beyond low-Earth orbit and lift gigantic payloads - since 1972 and the end of the Apollo Moon program.
Now comes an audacious plan that would use the rocket in just eight years on a manned mission to the captured asteroid. A similar plan was first suggested last year by space experts at the California Institute of Technology. The institute was joined in preparing a detailed feasibility study by other institutes, think tanks, laboratories and universities, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Their jointly produced Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study suggests that bringing a 500-ton asteroid closer to Earth would give astronauts a “unique, meaningful and affordable” destination for the next decade.
Nelson said he thinks NASA’s plan is very similar and that President Obama favors it, as the president already has announced a goal of sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. This plan would advance that date by four years to 2021.
“It would be mankind’s first attempt at modifying the heavens to enable the permanent settlement of humans in space,” scientists have said in the feasibility study.