This month, I thought I’d adopt a different format, as I found an amazing article on the NASA website regarding their long-term aims for the future. And they have their eyes on a place that’s captured our imagination for some time. Mars!
NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft. Once they have a suitable candidate, they intend to redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon, and then send astronauts to study it.
The timetable for such a mission? Sometime in the 2020s…not far away at all!
What’s interesting is the fact that NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission program, (ARM), is hoping to increase public participation in the search for asteroids, as well as advance the mission’s design.
So, what are the details?
NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches. However, NASA is working on two concepts:
The first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space.
The second is to collect a boulder-sized sample from a much larger asteroid.
Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 10m (32ft) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will then choose between these two concepts by the end of this year.
So, where do the public come in?
NASA will award a total of $4.9 million for concept studies addressing components of ARM, solicited through a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) released in March this year. Those studies considered will be selected in collaboration with NASA’s Space Technology and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorates.
Beginning in July, the studies will be completed over a six-month period, during which time system concepts and key technologies needed for ARM will be continually refined. The studies also will include an assessment of the feasibility of potential commercial partners to support the robotic mission.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope made recent observations of an asteroid, designated 2011 MD, which bears the characteristics of a good candidate for the full capture concept. While NASA will continue to look for other candidate asteroids during the next few years as the mission develops, astronomers are making progress to find suitable candidate asteroids for humanity’s next destination into the solar system.
Analysis of Spitzer’s infrared data show 2011 MD is roughly 20 feet (6 meters) in size and has a remarkably low density — about the same as water. Since solid rock is about three times as dense as water, this suggests about two-thirds of the asteroid must be empty space. The research team behind the observation says the asteroid could be a collection of small rocks, held loosely together by gravity, or it may be one solid rock with a surrounding halo of small particles. In both cases, the asteroid mass could be captured by the ARM capture mechanism and redirected into lunar orbit.
To date, nine asteroids have been identified as potential candidates for the mission. All have favorable orbits and are of the right size for the ARM full capture option. And the great thing is, NASA’s Near-Earth Objects (NEO) Program is finding several more potential candidate asteroids each year.
Of course, only one or two of these get close enough to Earth each year to be well characterized. But nevertheless, it helps expand the options considerably.
The Article went on to explain:
NASA’s search for candidate asteroids for ARM is a component of the agency’s existing efforts to identify all NEOs that could pose a threat to the Earth. Some of these NEOs could become candidates for ARM because they are in orbits similar to Earth’s. More than 11,140 NEOs have been discovered as of June 9. Approximately 1,483 of those have been classified as potentially hazardous.
In June 2013, NASA announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge (AGC) to accelerate this observation work through non-traditional collaborations and partnerships. On the first anniversary of the grand challenge this week, NASA officials announced new ways the public can contribute to the AGC, building on the successes of the challenge to date. To that end, NASA will host a two-day virtual workshop June 19 and 20 on emerging opportunities through the grand challenge, in which the public can participate.
“There are great ways for the public to help with our work to identify potentially hazardous asteroids,” said Jason Kessler, program executive for NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. “By tapping into the innovative spirit of people around the world, new public-private partnerships can help make Earth a safer place, and perhaps even provide valuable information about the asteroid that astronauts will visit.
The Asteroid Grand Challenge and Asteroid Redirect Mission comprise NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. Capabilities advanced and tested through the Asteroid Initiative will help astronauts reach Mars in the 2030s. For more information about the Asteroid Initiative and NASA’s human Path to Mars, visit:
So there you go. It’s amazing to see how far along we are advancing in reaching out to new worlds. Just think, we could see manned landings on other worlds in our lifetimes.
Anyway. That’s it for this now. The next article will return to its original format, and look at 10 things you might want to know about the Moons of our solar system.
As we concentrated on Mars this time around, I think that will be a fitting place to start.
See you soon…