Satellite Technology Feature Article
More NASA Asteroid Buzz after Criticism, Golden Spike Moon Announcement
By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor
Will NASA launch a daring unmanned mission to capture a small asteroid and put it in a parking orbit by the Moon for study and commercial exploitation? That's the latest buzz circulating in the space trade press, one that seems to offer something for everyone at the agency and in private industry.
It's hard to know what NASA can and can't do with budget cuts continuing to loom over the agency, but there is a lot of off-the-record talk about mounting an unmanned mission to capture a 500,000 kilogram, seven meter in diameter near Earth asteroid (NEA) and move it to a neutral gravity point by the Moon for visits by NASA astronauts.
Talk of asteroid capture is fueled by an April 2012 "Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study" by the Keck Institute for Space Studies and available on-line. The Keck report says it should be possible to find and move a suitable asteroid to a lunar parking orbit by 2025 on a budget of $2.6 billion and requiring a single Atlas V class launch -- making the venture both practical and affordable in the range of NASA's mid-range missions.
Image via Shutterstock
Building a capture mission would enable the development of a high-power solar electric propulsion system that could be applied to other missions for cargo delivery, hardware pre-positioning, and higher power vehicles for manned missions.
Planetary protection advocates who don't want to see humans end up like the dinosaurs welcome and encourage the opportunity to learn more about asteroids, especially on how to safely move them around and/or blow them up if one should happen to threaten Earth.
Parking the asteroid at a neutral gravity point between the Earth and Moon would make it easily accessible for exploration by NASA astronauts, while keeping the sizable rock away from Earth and any potential threat it might have. NASA would gain experience in deep space operations and working on an asteroid before -- or instead of -- mounting a longer, one-shot six to nine month asteroid exploration mission.
Scientists would get access to (literally) tons of samples of material dating back to the formation of the universe. The entire Apollo program returned a humble 382 kilograms of moon rocks in six missions, while the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission would return about 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of loose dirt and rock in 2023 at an estimated cost of $800 million plus a launch vehicle -- call it close to $1 billion once you add a rocket and potential cost overruns.
Commercial space miners and deep space exploration advocates drool at the prospects of a 500 metric ton asteroid in a stable parking orbit. The rock could be mined for water and other resources, with the water stored on-orbit for life support and broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. Needless to say, commercial miners wouldn't have to hunt around for a rock. NASA would also demonstrate that it's possible to capture and move an asteroid, leaving the commercial sector to make the capture/move process cheaper and develop efficient methods for mining.
A NASA asteroid capture mission would also be a PR boon, capturing the imagination of the public and bringing together research and commercial interests to the table. It will be interesting to see if the buzz becomes reality in 2013.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman