NASA’s Asteroid Initiative is a potential flagship mission, which could begin as early as 2015, to capture and investigate a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) and explore it with both unmanned and crewed spacecraft. On Thursday, Aug. 22, the agency released concept artwork and video animations showing various stages of the mission as currently envisaged.
The first phase of the Asteroid Initiative would involve a solar-electric powered robotic vehicle capturing a small NEA in a 15-meter-diameter bag and redirecting it into an orbit around the Moon. Later, in about 2021, a crewed Orion spacecraft would be launched to dock with the redirect craft and collect samples of the asteroid for study in labs on Earth.
The new images supplied by NASA depict Orion’s approach to and arrival at the asteroid and the steps by which astronauts will secure samples from the surface of the rocky body. A dramatic animation, prepared by Johnson Space Center Advanced Concept Lab, collapses the entire manned mission, from launch to splashdown, into a three-and-a-half-minute sequence.
The Asteroid Initiative has two overarching goals: to learn more about NEAs, which pose an ongoing threat to human and other life on Earth, and to develop technologies and techniques for use in future crewed deep space missions. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has put it: “This mission represents an unprecedented technological feat that will lead to new scientific discoveries and technological capabilities and help protect our home planet.” A Presidential FY 2014 budget request for $104 million has been put forward as a first step toward funding the enterprise.
Central to the Asteroid Initiative is the exploitation of leading edge technologies that will be used on other crewed ventures further afield. These include advanced solar electric propulsion and NASA’s in-development Space Launch System rocket and the above-mentioned Orion spacecraft.
In late July, NASA brought together senior personnel to carry out a formulation review of the asteroid mission. This involved scrutinizing various internal studies and proposals regarding each phase of the mission and assessing technical and programmatic aspects. Agency engineers are also looking at more than 400 responses that have been received to a request for ideas from industry, academia, and the public at large.
Next on the calendar of the Initiative is a NASA-hosted technical workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. This will be used to discuss further the responses and ideas that have come in and, where appropriate, to incorporate them into the mission concept.
Video courtesy of NASA