What Might NASA's Mission to Snag Asteroid Look Like?


Video courtesy of NASA

The recent announcement that $100 million had been earmarked in the White House’s FY 2014 Budget Proposal Request to send an unmanned probe to an asteroid and have it transported back to lunar orbit to be studied by astronauts has generated a lot of buzz. What would such a mission look like? What might the spacecraft look like?

NASA produced the above video, and in it you can see the craft that would travel out to whichever asteroid is selected and bring it back to lunar space. There still remains a lot of study and development into what the mission will actually entail, but NASA appears to be embracing the mission.

The first phase of the asteroid retrieval mission would involve an unmanned spacecraft venturing out to the roughly 500-ton, 25-foot-wide asteroid. Then it would study the dimensions of this remnant of our solar system’s early formation, expand a large enclosure that would encompass the asteroid, and tow the space rock into lunar orbit.

From there, the crewed phase of the mission would begin with astronauts launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop the space agency’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System, or “SLS,” in the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Upon reaching the asteroid they would emerge from Orion, collect samples, and bring them back to Earth. This would also provide both the spacecraft and its launch vehicle with something they currently lack—a clear short-term objective (NASA’s Dan Dumbacher has stated that the long-term objectives of both these craft is to send astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s).

Although the specifics as to what the actual spacecraft would look like have yet to be determined, NASA has released the above video showing what the agency feels the overall mission would look like. Image Credit: NASA

Although the specifics as to what the actual spacecraft would look like have yet to be determined, NASA has released the above video showing what the agency feels the overall mission would look like. Image Credit: NASA

“The mission to find, capture, and redirect an asteroid robotically, and then visit it with astronauts to study it and return samples takes advantage of expertise across all of NASA in an integrated approach to exploration. Along with the scientific research and technology demonstrations happening around the clock on the International Space Station that are teaching us how humans can live and work in space, this mission will give us valuable experience we need in deep space operations to send humans to more distant destinations in the solar system, including Mars. Through the balance of this fiscal year, we will work to define an affordable mission architecture. In Fiscal Year 2014, NASA will begin developing and testing prototype capture mechanisms and concepts for crew interactions with the asteroid,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier.

This two-step approach to space exploration is nothing new for the space agency. Since the early days of the Space Age, NASA has sent unmanned probes and landers on pathfinding missions to destinations in low-Earth orbit and the Moon. In fact, the crew of Apollo 12 actually visited the Surveyor 3 lander that had preceded them to the Moon’s “Ocean of Storms” landing site by roughly two years. The Apollo 12 crew removed certain sections of Surveyor 3 and returned them to Earth.

“The crucial first step in this endeavor is to enhance our ongoing efforts to identify and characterize near-Earth objects for scientific investigation and to find potentially hazardous asteroids and targets appropriate for capture. The capture mission will be a highly visible and significant collaboration of robotic and human exploration in translunar space,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science, and five-time space shuttle veteran, John Grunsfeld.

The mission’s specifics have yet to be clearly defined, and certain elements of the video that NASA has produced on the subject raise some interesting questions. NASA has highlighted that some of the factors that defined this mission revolve around technology development, but other aspects of the mission have had scant information provided to clarify why NASA would bring an asteroid into lunar orbit—but yet would not send astronauts to the Moon anytime in the foreseeable future. As one industry insider put it, ” … that’s like building a pond in front of a lake—it doesn’t make much sense.”

“This mission accelerates our technology development activities in high-powered solar electric propulsion. The ambitious mission to rendezvous, capture, and redirect a small asteroid to Earth-Moon space could not be accomplished without solar electric propulsion technology. This technology also will support the commercial telecommunications and satellite industries, and is an essential step toward future NASA human and robotic exploration forays into deep space,” said Associate Administrator for Space Technology Michael Gazarik.

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