In April 2010, President Obama announced a plan that, at the time, received a rather tepid response. This was the president’s announcement that NASA would conduct a mission to an asteroid. The plan, which many assumed had been forgotten, came roaring back into the spotlight last week when Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced that not only would the U.S. send crews to an asteroid, but would bring that asteroid back to Earth orbit (more accurately, the orbit of our Moon). If this plan is managed properly, Obama’s vague and poorly-detailed mission to an asteroid could serve as the most powerful, positive catalyst for change for NASA since the Apollo Program.
Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine broke the news about this mission late last month, detailing how $100 million had been set aside in the White House’s NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request, which would go to get the program started.
Sen. Nelson has stated that we can expect to see the $100 million tasked for this effort to be unveiled in the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget, scheduled to take place around the middle of this week.
According to a press release issued by Sen. Nelson, the plan would go something like this: The initial mission, unlike what the president stated in 2010, would be unmanned. The pre-selected asteroid would be captured, towed back to Earth, and placed in a stable orbit around our Moon.
After this has been accomplished, astronauts using NASA’s next crewed spacecraft, Orion, would travel to the asteroid and possibly conduct mining activities.
It can be argued that human space exploration is viewed as something that, while interesting to do, does not provide any immediate benefit. Indeed after the announcement was made, this journalist heard a radio station state that the mission was not worth the $100 million price tag. They are correct—it is worth exponentially more, if handled correctly.
The scare produced by the near-miss of Asteroid 2012 DA14 eclipsed the estimated mineral worth of the asteroid—some $195 billion. That amount is according to some industry analysts, with others stating that the amount to mine the asteroid has not been taken into account. To put it another way, the asteroid is worth more than the NASA budget—by a decade (the Space Agency’s current budget is $18.7 billion a year). Other floating space rocks have exponentially more minerals within them. How much more? A report in the Daily Mail places one asteroid’s worth at $95.8 trillion.
The determining factor as to whether or not this can be turned into a possible cash cow is how it is managed. First, the “correct” asteroid must be selected and brought to lunar orbit for study and possible mining. Then, the next part of the problem is determining the least expensive, but safest, way to deliver any mined materials back to Earth.
According to a report in CBS News, the primary purpose of the asteroid mission would be technology development. The devil is in the details, and what other efforts will be pushed for this asteroid remain to be specified.
“This is part of what will be a much broader program,” Nelson said during a recent visit to Orlando. “The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars.”
Conducting this mission could potentially teach us a lot about how to deflect one of these leftovers from the solar system’s formation if we find one on a trajectory that could impact Earth. In the release issued by Nelson’s office, one other benefit highlighted by having this asteroid in lunar orbit was stated as: “ … testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.” It is unclear how an asteroid would serve as a better test bed for space technology than the Moon it would be orbiting.
The release also touted how Sen. Nelson, along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), worked to have NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the “Space Launch System,” or SLS, be approved. This would likely be the launch vehicle used to send the crews to the asteroid by 2021. This would advance the president’s plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by some four years (Obama’s plan was to take place in the 2025 time frame).
Opponents to SLS have complained that the booster has no clear short-term destination/purpose. If the asteroid mission is confirmed, this would negate these statements.
Proposed missions to an asteroid are nothing new. Many plans have been proposed over the years, with one of the most recent being conducted by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which produced its study last year. They were joined by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The study, dubbed the “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study,” looked into bringing a 500-ton asteroid closer to our home world.
As with most government projects, this one will doubtlessly change and develop. Whether or not the possibility of mining this asteroid becomes a focal point for the effort remains to be seen. If this were to take place, if the most “lucrative” asteroid were to be selected, and if affordable means to deliver the resources these asteroids are abundant in are selected? Then this mission could revolutionize how humanity views space.
Why? Simple, the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $70 trillion. If all the “ifs” above are done properly and if the program’s total cost could be kept to say $25 trillion (this amount was selected for a reason—wait for it)? Then this mission could possibly return as much mineral wealth as the planet’s total wealth for an entire year (if an asteroid as abundant in resources as the one described in the Daily Mail article is chosen). Those railing for the death of NASA would effectively be silenced. The space agency would more than earn its keep. However, it is, after all, a government program and there are still a lot of “ifs” between us and this brave new world.
“On @ the 90” is an opinion-based feature detailing key events in the post-shuttle era.
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