Illustration courtesy NASA
Published April 10, 2013
NASA wants to identify an asteroid in deep space, figure out a way to capture the spinning and hard-to-grab orb, nudge it into our planetary region, and then set it into orbit around the moon, the agency announced Wednesday.
The capture would be performed robotically, and the relocated asteroid would become a destination for astronauts to explore—and, possibly, for space entrepreneurs to mine.
The idea may sound more like science fiction than national policy, but it actually fits in with key goals of the Obama administration and the space community.
Those goals include learning how to identify asteroids heading toward us and to change their course, finding destinations where astronauts can go as they try to learn how to make the longer trip to Mars, and providing opportunities for space investors. (Related: Psychological Challenges of a Manned Mars Mission.)
"This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement before the plan was announced on Wednesday.
"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," his statement continued.
Planning for the effort has just begun, and Bolden said teams will meet over the summer to work out how to select the right asteroid, how to get a spacecraft to it, and how to tow it many millions of miles to our moon.
As envisioned in a new NASA video (below), the asteroid would be caught and then surrounded by a large, flexible covering that will be towed by a spacecraft with two large solar arrays.
The NASA idea is similar to one developed by scientists at the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, and proposed by them last year.
A robotic spacecraft could drag a 23-foot, 500-ton near-Earth asteroid (NEA) using currently available technology, the Keck scientists concluded, though that technology would have to be modified somewhat. That team estimated that the project would cost $2.6 billion, but NASA officials say its effort would cost much less.
That's because NASA will look much closer to earth for their target asteroid, and because the agency will already be spending millions on related rocketry and technology.
The asteroid proposal was part of the NASA budget rollout for 2014, part of the broader federal budget that President Barack Obama unveiled Wednesday, which included an initial $104 million for the project.
But Bolden said the plan could go forward only if the federal government could roll back the cuts made as a result of the recent sequester.
In a presentation, NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot laid out the agency's timeline for the mission: target selection in 2016, asteroid capture in 2019, and the first astronaut visits to the relocated rock in 2021.
As explained by Paul Dimotakis, one of the Keck scientists who worked on the project, the physics of the endeavor requires NASA to target a relatively small asteroid of 500 to 1,000 tons.
Asteroids come in many forms, from rubble piles barely held together by their own gravity to dense balls of iron and nickel. Dimotakis said the asteroid to capture needs to be the consistency of dried mud.
Finding the right asteroid to capture will not be easy, Dimotakis said. Because of the limited size and nudging or towing power of the capsule that will be sent to the asteroid, the rock itself cannot be more than 1,000 tons.
What's more, it needs to be on a trajectory that would take it close to the Earth and moon even without a tow. The capture spacecraft, Dimotakis said, would not have enough power and fuel to dramatically change the direction of an asteroid of 500 to 1,000 tons.
By far the largest concentration of asteroids in the solar system orbit in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. But NASA will be looking for one in Earth's extended neighborhood.
Bolden and Dimotakis listed numerous reasons for undertaking the project, but emphasized three in particular.
Because asteroids are among the oldest objects in the solar system, Dimotakis said, bringing one to a place where it could be studied intensely would allow scientists to gain a much better understanding of what that early solar system was like. He said having an asteroid nearby that could be constantly visited would likely lead to scientific breakthroughs.
And if the long-term goal of American space exploration is to send astronauts to Mars—which President Obama has proposed for the 2030s—then space program managers need achievable milestones to prepare for that mission.
An asteroid orbiting the moon, or at the unique second LaGrange point near the moon where the gravitational pull of Earth and the moon are about equal, would provide such a destination. It would also provide a use for the Orion capsule and Space Launch System now being developed by the agency.
Additionally, the issue of asteroid hazards has taken on a greater urgency of late.
Although tons of material fall every day from space down onto Earth, most is in the form of dust or the fist-sized rocks that become "shooting stars." NASA has long had a program to identify and study near-earth asteroids, but its focus and budget have been growing only in recent years.
Then in February an 11,000-ton meteorite exploded 10 to 16 miles above the skies of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The explosion, which was 20 to 30 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, caused more than 1,500 injuries, mostly from broken glass. (Video: Predicting Asteroid Impacts.)
A significantly larger asteroid passed by Earth only 16 hours later. That one flew by harmlessly, but further increased concern about the hazards of the many asteroids in our solar neighborhood and supported the case for giving greater attention to what is termed "planetary defense."
An additional reason given to support the asteroid retrieval project involves the fast-growing number of commercial space companies and projects. Several companies have proposed mining asteroids for the rare and valuable metals they are believed to carry, and having a potential mining site so close could quickly spur development.
If they really want to figure out how to get the craft out there, and how to tow it back, plug the parameters into Kerbal Space Program and let the gamers loose on it.
I think it is utterly fantastic that NASA is once again trying to take larger steps. Had we continued with the space race, we would likely have a permanent settlement outside earth's atmo by now, possibly out of her gravitational field.
Also, for anyone doubting the value of mining asteroids, Iridium. Look it up. Super awesome metal that is totally useful for a bunch of stuff, only comes from asteroids. Also, crap loads of iron, gold, silver, water, etc.
My god. I literally cannot comprehend the ignorance in this thread. If you don't know what you're talking about, please just don't open that hole in your face.
If the ultimate goal is actually to mine in space, why not finance NOAA at a fraction of the cost for some deep sea exploration? I mean, really "tow an asteroid back to our planetary neighbourhood" was one of the Obama administrations goals? You mean to tell me someone sat down, sparked a joint, and decided THIS was what needed to be done?
NASA people make some hypothesises based on some researches. I remembered when they mentioned that the world will end at 2012, and when this time came, they postpone it to 2022. These people not quite sure about the time they picked. I do not need to bother myself anymore about what they say. If they have a solution for our planet, I encourage them to do it. Otherwise , I am not free to make myself busy with space problems, I have my space problems that need me to discover a real solutions not like NASA solutions.
I'm sure NASA has a hidden agenda here, as this does not make sense. Mining in space? Lassoing an asteroid where? How to find it? How to get there and bring it back under a billion, billion dollar$. Once back put it in orbit around the moon, why not high earth orbit?
The poleshift is coming and they are looking for a reason to ferry wealthy patrons away from Earth to escape the world-wide calamity that the poleshift will bring.
Spännande här i bilden skall jag läsa noga på och bra ser ut tydligare också vill jag se i video snart också min intresse
Many science and robotics at the beginning, then to have got out two cosmonauts and a hammer hit an asteroid. lol)))
Isn't this a little bit like...dangerous? What if the something goes wrong, and the asteroid starts hurdling towards earth? We wouldn't even have the chance to say bye bye...why aren't they focusing on exploring the moon better?
I'm sorry - but,
I'm all for continuing the space race but didn't congress and NASA just threaten to shut down the James Webb project? and now there like:
"hey guys, looking so deep into space that we could actually see the beginning of the universe is boring! lets move a rock instead"
mine a tunnel down to an open center, then huge doors to lock in pressure. after that, send it back through space and we have space travel with no energy cost.
@rahul sharma I like how people think this is CRAZY when science fiction novels/movies have been telling you people this is "plausible" and will just take time.
@Jay Raymond You are literally trying to explain rocket science, to idiots. Some tasks are just too great, my friend.
@Bobby Wheatleyimagine literal mountains of gold and other precious materials floating around like fish, just waiting to be caught and cooked. .1% of that mountain could make you rich. The whole mountain would make you richer than Bill Gates. That is the result of space mining; Enough floating mountains of precious materials for every man to have their own... and that's just in our solar system.
Exploring the oceans will be interesting and will return a great deal of materials. The space expansion will provide enough to set us into an economic boom so large that we will not have another recession for another 1000 years or more.
Of course, first we have to get at least one asteroid, and that's what this mission is about.
@Bobby WheatleyMining asteroids for precious metals is only the main goal if space exploration is funded by privatization. Until then, it's purely scientific knowledge that is the driving force to pushing the bounderies of space exploration.
@salem alqahtani No scientist said that the world would end in 2012. That was the result of a 300+ year old prophesy made by a society on drugs who claimed to be able to calculate future events with mathematics.
@salem alqahtani *sigh* NASA tried everything they could to play down the 'fact' that the earth was going to be destroyed by some astronomical or alien force on december 1 2012. And now you're trying to blame them? Please just stop... Just stop.
@Chris Thomas Wakefieldimagine literal mountains of gold and other precious materials floating around like fish, just waiting to be caught and cooked. .1% of that mountain could make you rich. The whole mountain would make you richer than Bill Gates. Several mountains could fund the entire country. The whole deficit could be paid off with one or two of these mountainous asteroids. That is the result of space mining; Enough floating mountains of precious materials for every man to have their own... and that's just in our solar system.
@Chris Thomas Wakefield You seem to be a missinformed (tragically) member of some kind of conspiracy cult. The polar shift is a completely natural phenomenon that happens once every 10 thousand years or so. Nothing much will happen. I understand your ignorance. I suggest you read UP on the subject, rather than INTO the conspiracy theories.
@Darko Subotin It would be too small to be any kind of major threat. And it would take extraordinary precision to plunge it into earths atmosphere. We live on a tiny planet, believe it or not.
@Darko Subotin There is absolutely no threat to Earth from something of this size. Here are some comparisons.
The Asteroid NASA is targeting: about 500-1000 tons
Asteroid that exploded over Russia in Feb: about 11,000 tons
Apophis (smaller than what killed the dinosaurs): 40 Megatons (there are a million tons in a single megaton)
The one that killed the dinosaurs: Mass is hard to know. But it was about 100 kilometers in diameter. Apophis is 325 meters, so probably in the ballpark of 1200 megatons.
This thing will not be dangerous to Earth. The earth plows through hundreds to thousands of tons of rock every day. Things this size burn up in the atmosphere.
@Ryan Coxeyimagine literal mountains of gold and other precious materials floating around like fish, just waiting to be caught and cooked. .1% of that mountain could make you rich. The whole mountain would make you richer than Bill Gates. Several mountains could fund the entire country. The whole US deficit could be paid off with one or two of these mountainous asteroids. One mountain could pay for the James Webb project at a future date. That is the result of space mining; Enough floating mountains of precious materials for every man to have their own... and that's just in our solar system.
@Ryan Coxey I'm sorry, but how is this boring? Don't you want to know how we're all here? what started the big bang? and is their an edge to the Universe? if so? how?
@Ryan Coxey Why didn't you read the article?
@Loretta Della Spriella It probably will in a very big way if lays the foundation for the mining of asteroids in an economical way. Rare Earth metals are only rare on Earth, but they are commonly used in many of today's more advanced technologies. You want the prices to come down? Let's find another source.
@Tyler Chavez It would require a lot more than that to turn it into a space ship. That will be a good method to make space trains leading between Earth and Mars in the future at a lower cost, though.
@Tyler Chavez Why not just manufacture a metal shell on Earth if we're looking at it like that?
@Tyler Chavez what?
@Nate White @rahul sharma Man, I have been waiting for this since I was seven years old. Space travel has lost its wonder in me, which gave way to pure desire. Part of that process was based on the inevitability of it, so I no longer felt like it was a dream. Another part of that process was in realizing exactly how many tons of materials are available in space.
For those that don't know, imagine literal mountains of gold and other precious materials floating around like fish, just waiting to be caught and cooked. .1% of that mountain could make you rich. The whole mountain would make you richer than Bill Gates.
@Darko Subotin Well i can't, considering no one is strategically funding an institute to look out for objects that CAN kill us. Even if they did, we don't have a tried and tested way of dealing with it. The dinosaurs didn't have that kind of technology and neither do we. As yet.
Photojournalist Allison Shelley documented Haiti for a year after the 2010 quake. She went back this month to check on rebuilding progress.
An innovative mapping project could help indigenous people claim ancestral lands—and protect ancient forest.
With little known about sea snakes, scientists worry that massive harvests could be damaging wild populations.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.