NASA has unveiled details pertaining to a new mission to locate, redirect and capture an asteroid in close orbit with Earth, using the Orion spacecraft. In addition, as part of its proposed asteroid hunt, the agency plans to obtain samples, using human spacewalk runs, in hopes that sample analysis may yield some greater understanding of our galaxy.
According to NASA, they are attempting to capture near-Earth asteroids as a part of their Asteroid Redirect Mission, to research and classify them in much greater detail. This could help identify potentially harmful asteroids; these coordinated efforts could then be used to target and impede their orbit.
During their concept video, NASA attempts to explain the intricacies of their ambitious Redirect project. They depict a captured asteroid, in orbit around the moon, to be targeted and investigated. A manned space shuttle, called Orion, will then begin its nine-day journey to the asteroid and use lunar gravity assist to swing by the moon, towards their ultimate destination.
Essentially, the asteroid will be held in a “capture bag,” and then presented to incoming astronauts in an orbit around the moon; its position will be guaranteed using ion thrusters.
Once Orion has spiraled around the moon and begins honing in on the already-imprisoned asteroid, the astronauts dock with a robotic capture vehicle, affixed to the helpless asteroid, and prepare for their space walk. After shuffling along the perimeter of the asteroid, the space explorers will inspect the asteroid and obtain a series of samples, ready for thorough inspection.
Content with their work, the team of astronauts will disembark from the robotic capture vehicle and begin to make a ten-day return journey, again, harnessing the gravitational forces of the moon to jettison them back to Earth.
The implications of asteroid capture are quite significant. These protocols, if successful, could provide a viable planetary defense method, prohibiting hazardous asteroids on a direct collision course for Earth. Aside from this, such a technique could signal the first of many asteroid captures for the benefit of asteroid mining.
However, aside from their plans in asteroid hunting, NASA is also preparing a similar program, which looks set to take asteroid mining to an entirely new level. At the tail end of 2018, NASA plans to dispatch an unmanned, yet highly sophisticated, spacecraft (OSIRIS-REX) to an asteroid called Bennu. Upon arrival, OSIRIS-REX will scan the asteroid using a series of spectrometers and will then commence collection of deep-surface samples, before returning. It’s thought that asteroids could yield an abundant source of materials, including precious metals, fertilizer components, as well as nickel, magnesium and iron. What’s more, C-type asteroids may also yield substantial banks of water, which could be utilized during space travel for rehydration and a source of breathable oxygen.
In addition, the propulsion technology required for such endeavors could eventually improve NASA’s chances of visiting Mars. However, this may be slightly redundant, as a Dutch-based corporation is already planning their Mars One campaign, which looks set to deliver human colonies to Mars, by as early as 2023.
Alas, there are always unfortunate political hurdles that must be overcome. According to NASA’s website, the plans come in the wake of President Obama’s appeal for a 2014 fiscal year budget from the world-renowned space agency. However, a Republican-based subcommittee on all-matters space has elected to try and cap NASA’s future budget at five percent less than the previous year.
According to The Register, congress wishes to assume control over the space agency’s selection of administrator. Worryingly, when reviewing the bill associated with such regulation, the chairman for the Committee on Science Space and Technology, Lamar Smith, had this to say:
“Today, a question exists about NASA’s vision, namely, whether there is one.”
This was then followed by a discussion of the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, which stipulates that NASA will be forced to pursue expeditions to the surface of both the Moon and Mars, whilst ditching their planned asteroid-retrieval mission:
“The administrator shall not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission…”
The act is certainly not set in stone, however, and an official of the Obama administration has since defined the proposed legislation as a “non-starter.” Let’s just hope that NASA’s planned asteroid hunt isn’t doomed by the meddling political powers that be.
By: James Fenner