NASA will likely get $100 million next year to jump-start an audacious program to drag an asteroid into orbit around the moon for research and exploration purposes, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson says.
The $100 million will probably be part of President Barack Obama’s federal budget request for 2014, which is expected to be released next week, Nelson (D-FL) said. The money is intended to get the ball rolling on the asteroid-retrieval project, which also aims to send astronauts out to the captured space rock in 2021.
“This is part of what will be a much broader program,” Nelson said Friday (April 5), during a visit to 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.”
“Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the “Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars, and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt.”
Capturing a near-Earth asteroid and dragging it into orbit around the moon could help humanity put boots on Mars someday, proponents of the idea say.
NASA is considering a $2.6 billion asteroid-retrieval mission that could deliver a space rock to high lunar orbit by 2025 or so, New Scientist reported last week. The plan could help jump-start manned exploration of deep space, carving out a path to the Red Planet and perhaps even more far-flung destinations, its developers maintain.
“Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt,” the mission concept team, which is based at the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California, wrote in a feasibility study of the plan last year.
For now, NASA’s only official plans for human spaceflight involve sending a crewed capsule, called Orion, around the moon. The Obama administration has said it also wants to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid. One proposed target, chosen because of its scientific value and favourable launch windows for a rendezvous, is a space rock called 1999 AO10. The mission would take about half a year, exposing astronauts to long-term radiation beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field and taking them beyond the reach of any possible rescue.
Robotically bringing an asteroid to the moon instead would be a more attractive first step, the Keck researchers conclude, because an object orbiting the moon would be in easier reach of robotic probes and maybe even humans.
The Keck team envisions launching a slow-moving spacecraft, propelled by solar-heated ions, on an Atlas V rocket. The craft would then propel itself out to a target asteroid, probably a small space rock about 7 metres wide. After studying it briefly, the robot would catch the asteroid in a bag measuring about 10 metres by 15 metres and head back towards the moon. Altogether it would take about six to 10 years to deliver the asteroid to lunar orbit.
The project still needs some technical and scientific fine-tuning, says co-leader Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society, but he sees it as an important boost to exploration.
Asteroids are small, airless rocky worlds revolving around the sun that are too small to be called planets. They are also known as planetoids or minor planets. In total, the mass of all the asteroids is less than that of Earth’s moon. But despite their size, asteroids can be dangerous. Many have hit Earth in the past, and more will crash into our planet in the future. That’s one reason scientists study asteroids and are eager to learn more about their numbers, orbits and physical characteristics. If an asteroid is headed our way, we want to know that.
Most asteroids lie in a vast ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This main belt holds more than 200 asteroids larger than 60 miles (100 kilometers) in diameter.
Scientists estimate the asteroid belt also contains more than 750,000 asteroids larger than three-fifths of a mile (1 kilometer) in diameter and millions of smaller ones. Not everything in the main belt is an asteroid — for instance, comets have recently been discovered there, and Ceres, once thought of only as an asteroid, is now also considered a dwarf planet.
Many asteroids lie outside the main belt. For instance, a number of asteroids called Trojans lie along Jupiter’s orbital path. Three groups — Atens, Amors, and Apollos — known as near-Earth asteroids orbit in the inner solar system and sometimes cross the path of Mars and Earth.
NASA To Drag Asteroid To The Moon