By Brian Vastag
The next giant leap in space exploration may be a short hop on a small space rock.
Next week, President Obama will request $105 million in NASA’s 2014 budget for a mission that would capture a small asteroid, tug it near the moon, and later send astronauts to study it and grab samples.
The asteroid-capturing robot could launch as soon as 2017, with astronauts flying to meet it near the moon by 2021, according to a NASA briefing presented to Congress last week.
The president’s request includes $78 million for NASA to develop technologies for the project and $27 million for beefing up the agency’s asteroid-detection work. The mission would fulfill a goal Obama set three years ago to send astronauts to an asteroid.
The mission would marry ongoing NASA projects, including asteroid detection, robotic spacecraft development, the construction of a giant new rocket — the Space Launch System — and the building of a deep-space human exploration capsule called Orion. A non-crewed test launch of Orion is set for next year.
By this summer, NASA is to decide whether the project is feasible, according to agency documents.
The human portion of the mission would send people beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time since the final Apollo moon landing, in 1972.
Crews visiting the captured asteroid could conduct experiments in extracting water, oxygen, metals and silicon, all valuable materials that would help future astronauts “live off the land” during long missions.
On Friday, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a big NASA booster, championed the project, saying it “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.”
Under the plan, an Atlas V rocket would launch the robotic craft toward a 20- to 30-foot-wide asteroid. Upon arrival, the craft would deploy a big bag, stuff the asteroid into it and start motoring toward the moon. The Space Launch System and Orion would later deliver the human crew.
A 2012 study estimated that moving an asteroid to the moon could take six to 10 years, pushing the timeline for a human asteroid landing beyond 2021. NASA would ultimately need $2.6 billion for the robotic capture phase, according to the study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies, and billions more for the human mission.
Technical challenges abound, said former NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart, including finding the right asteroid and figuring out how to corral it. “One big issue is how do you hold on?” he said. “Frankly, nobody knows how to attach to an asteroid. It’s a blank spot in our knowledge.”