When the Obama administration’s 2014 federal budget gets released in early April, it might include a curious item: a $100 million request for NASA to conduct a mission to capture an asteroid and bring it back to Earth.
This idea comes from an article published March 28 in Aviation Week and Space Technology, which reports on the space industry. The plan would identify a small asteroid, grab it with a robotic spacecraft, and tug it to the vicinity of our planet, perhaps somewhere near the moon. Such a mission was the subject of a two-day meeting of scientists and engineers at Caltech organized by the Keck Institute for Space Studies in 2011.
The somewhat insane-sounding idea was deemed technically feasible by attendees at that meeting, perhaps by using a large magnet or harpoon-like anchor to secure the giant space rock. The Keck meeting concluded that the entire operation would cost about $2.6 billion and require between six and 10 years to tug a roughly 7-meter asteroid back to Earth. NASA has been mulling the merits of such a plan since January. There are plenty of targets: Nearly 20,000 asteroids exist quite close to our planet and President Barack Obama has previously stated that he would like to send humans to explore one of these bodies around 2025.
Going to any asteroid in its current orbit would likely be a six-month trip. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discussed the president’s plan in December, saying that Obama “did not say NASA had to fly all the way to an asteroid. What matters is the ability to put humans with an asteroid.” An asteroid that was brought nearer to Earth could conceivably take only a week or so for a round trip.
The mission would be a proving ground for new technology, help make scientific discoveries about the early solar system, and give NASA something to do with the enormous new rocket it’s building. It could also provide important information to several private companies that want to mine asteroids in the near future. Finally, in the aftermath of the bolide that exploded over Russia, the world’s attention is turned to the need to deflect potentially dangerous asteroids.
Rumors have often swirled around bold new plans for NASA, including a recent idea that the agency could construct a space station that would orbit the moon. That mission has yet to appear but it’s worth noting that the original source of it came from space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University and not from anyone within NASA. Aviation Week is known for having contacts inside the U.S. military and space industries.
Given the large funding needed and the cost-cutting mindset of the current Congress, it’s not entirely clear if NASA can afford to wrangle an asteroid for some interplanetary feng shui. The presidential budget request is set to be unveiled April 10, several months later than usual because of complications arising from the sequester, a congressionally mandated across-the-board budget cut that will be takingmore than a billion dollars from NASA’s overall funding. It’s possible that the $100 million in the administration’s request will be a down payment for the first part of such a mission.