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NASA Getting into the Asteroid-Moving Business

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Sen. Bill Nelson and the Orion capsule

In a 2012 photo, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson inspects an Orion capsule of the kind that may someday carry astronauts to an asteroid. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Dissatisfied with the current state of the solar system, NASA is looking to do a little remodeling.

The space agency is angling to capture a small asteroid and drag it closer to Earth for human exploration, the Associated Press reported April 6. The Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2014 will include $100 million to kick off the project, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, told reporters. Nelson’s statements confirmed a March report in Aviation Week about the mission.

The idea is to accelerate human exploration of the solar system, particularly the bodies that have never seen human visitors—namely, everywhere except Earth and the moon. Back in 2010, President Obama announced his intention to send human explorers to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s. According to the AP, under the new plan a robotic craft would snag a yet to be-selected asteroid in 2019 and return it to the vicinity of the moon for a human spacewalking mission two years later.

The plan builds on a proposal examined in a 2012 report from the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology. In that report, an expert group estimated that a robotic probe could capture a seven-meter, 500,000-kilogram asteroid and haul it back to lunar orbit for exploration by 2025. That alone would cost about $2.6 billion, according to the KISS report (pdf), but somehow the version of the plan described to NBC News by an anonymous Obama administration source would do the same thing four years faster for less than half the cost. (Magic 8-Ball says: “Don’t Count on It.”)

Details aside, what’s the point of going to an asteroid? The KISS report highlights a few justifications, including the planetary science benefits of the first asteroid “dissection,” as well as the planetary defense benefit of anchoring to an asteroid, which may someday prove useful if a space rock is found to be on a dangerous trajectory and needs to be rerouted. What is more, an asteroid mission could open the door to the spaceborne extraction of precious materials, as has been proposed by Planetary Resources, Inc. (which bills itself as “The Asteroid Mining Company”).

But the real advantage of asteroid exploration is that astronauts could simply sidle up to a small space rock without the need for a costly, complex landing module, as is required to negotiate the gravitational pull of a larger body such as Mars or the moon. The downside is that the idea of an asteroid mission has hardly stoked the passion of the public since it was first announced three years ago. And it is hard to imagine a spacewalking exploration of a dusty little rock with a name like 2008 EV5 garnering the same excitement as a mission to an object that looms large in the night sky and in our imagination.

In his remarks to reporters, Nelson called the asteroid mission “a clever concept.” One of my esteemed colleagues calls it “batsh*t crazy.” I’d say it’s somewhere in between. On one hand, it does feel a bit like “make-work,” as my colleague put it—creating a destination just so we have somewhere to go. On the other hand, no human being has left low Earth orbit in 40 years. And if it’s an asteroid expedition that breaks that drought, I’ll take it.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 6:10 pm 04/9/2013

    This is a good step forward for a number of reasons. First, if we are to undertake this mission, we would need a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of sending people back to the moon. After 40 years of not having this capability, it will be good to have it back. Secondly, like the article mentioned, it will allow us to learn a lot of things about asteroids and how to change their orbits while improving our asteroid deflection techniques. This will allow us to move larger and larger space rocks to where we want them, setting up a whole series of asteroid rendezvous.

    All this could lead up to using asteroids with diameters around 100m for interplanetary space travel themselves. The interior of an asteroid can provide all the radiation and micrometeorite shielding a manned interplanetary mission could need. The people aboard could use the months to years of transit time studying the asteroid and taking other valuable measurements. Several of these asteroids could shuttle back and forth between Earth and Mars, setting up a continuous circuit for people and materials between the two planets. Having this all in place before we even send people to Mars is probably one of the easier ways to pull the whole colonization thing off.

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  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 6:35 pm 04/9/2013

    Between 1916 and 1968 we went from “Birth Of A Nation”, biplanes and zeppelins to Apollo 8, the first manned mission to lunar orbit – a 52 year span.

    I’m 52 (as of 2013). People my age during the 1960’s and 70’s dreamed of large permanent space stations, moon bases and AI robots doing chores, not the Skylab-on-steroids ISS, Roombas and AI spam-filters. The basic concept of an iPad was depicted in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and we did have tablet computers by the late 1990’s. It certainly wasn’t unreasonable in the 1960s to expect a permanent Moon base by 2000.

    Compare the cost of the entire space program in the US to the cost of US Great Society type programs. You might be very surprised.

    Total Program Spending Comparison*****
    NASA, since 1958 – $851.2 billion by 2007
    (inflation-adjusted 2007 dollars)
    War On Poverty means-tested welfare, since 1964 – $16.7 trillion by 2008
    (inflation adjusted 2008 dollars – three times what the US has spent on all its wars)

    During 2011, about 0.5% of the federal budget went to NASA, while 17% of the federal budget went to means-tested welfare programs. NASA since 1958 has gotten 1/20th of what Medicaid, food stamps and the like have gotten since 1964, yet has actually increased US GDP.

    We’ve stopped doing Big Stuff. Big Stuff is not the iPhone. “Big Stuff” has been defined as things like electricity and the Hoover Dam, the telephone and the Internet, internal combustion and the automobile/powered flight, radio and television liquid-fueled rockets, nuclear bombs and power, electronic digital computing and the Internet, lasers, integrated circuits and landing on the Moon. An asteroid rendezvous would qualify as well.

    Exploring asteroids and Mars from Moon based facilities would be much more cost-effective than using Earth-bound facilities – that is, if these missions are on a continuing basis. I have a feeling that nothing could be further from Obama’s intentions. I don’t think it likely NASA will be sending people to an asteroid in the near future, contrary to administration assertions. We’ll be hearing that from Bolden in due time, just like with the bad news concerning the Moon.

    I’ll be rooting for China, I guess.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 6:48 pm 04/9/2013

    Over on the NASA site most agree it’s “batsh*t crazy.”

    Manned missions just aren’t viable within NASA’s budget. NASA is about to get further cuts from the sequester…the cookie jar is overflowing with IOUs. Dedicated unmanned missions accomplish actual science….manned exploration at this time is just ‘feel good’ PR that will go nowhere.

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 8:30 pm 04/9/2013

    Sure unmanned missions accomplish a great deal, and are cheaper. The thing is, they’re being cut too.

    Link to this
  5. 5. N a g n o s t i c 8:42 pm 04/9/2013

    We’re like the Chinese after 1433. Their navy repeatedly visited East Africa during the 13th and 14th Centuries, then withdrew for 400 years or so.

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  6. 6. N a g n o s t i c 9:05 pm 04/9/2013

    Anyway, the administration is engaged in a dog-and-pony show for Bill Nelson. Throw some money at Florida to keep the engineers working for now. We’re not going anywhere.

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  7. 7. CharlieinNeedham 8:09 pm 04/10/2013

    What a waste of $$$$$$$$$$$$$!

    With the current budget deficit, does anyone seriously believe Congress, that can agree on nothing, will agree on this?

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  8. 8. R T Nicholson 6:58 pm 04/13/2013

    I’m not so sure it would be a complete waste of money. We need to learn how to capture and control, or at least divert, large space objects in case one threatens impact with earth.

    Perhaps all we need to do is learn how to fix a rocket to one and push it out of its dangerous orbit.

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  9. 9. Hop David 3:52 am 04/16/2013

    “What is more, an asteroid mission could open the door to the spaceborne extraction of precious materials, as has been proposed by Planetary Resources, Inc. ”

    Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation is a major obstacle to economic space flight. Propellant high on the slopes of earth’s gravity well would break the exponent in the rocket equation and profoundly change the way we do space flight.

    The most valuable space resource is not precious metals but water. Planetary Resources has said as much:

    Link to this

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