NASA Preparing To Catch An Asteroid By The End Of The Decade


NASA is making progress on the Asteroid Redirect Mission, it announced today, identifying 18 proposals to help it achieve the goal of capturing an asteroid by 2019 and putting it into orbit around the moon for further study. As part of the larger Asteroid and Comet Watch program, it’s natural to think that this is a dry-run for some future Armageddon-esque rescue plan, but the scale is way off.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission will trap a 10-meter asteroid (or break a 10-meter chunk off a larger asteroid) for study; the momentum necessary to move an asteroid the size of Texas just isn’t there. The main goal is to develop new techniques as a part of NASA’s long-term plan for a manned mission to Mars.

Asteroid Redirect Mission gives NASA a chance to develop new capabilities

“With these system concept studies, we are taking the next steps to develop capabilities needed to send humans deeper into space than ever before, and ultimately to Mars, while testing new techniques to protect Earth from asteroids,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

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The basic plan is a nine-day trip to the asteroid via the Orion spacecraft, up to six days of operations, and then a ten day trip back home, leaving the asteroid and the capture vehicle in lunar orbit for future study. NASA has called this an important stepping stone to reach Mars, but not in the sense that astronauts will someday use a small rock in lunar orbit as part of a Mars mission. The mission will give NASA the opportunity to test new equipment and techniques as part of a mission whose broad outline (circle the moon, come home) is something they can already do with confidence.

NASA has budgeted $4.9 million for the studies

Of the eighteen approved proposals, four companies will study methods for actually capturing an asteroid, two will work on improved rendezvous sensors, four will work on adapting commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, five will focus on the secondary payload vehicles, and three will explore the possibility of commercial partnerships to improve the project. The total budget for all eighteen six-month studies is $4.9 million.

Even though the Asteroid Redirect Mission isn’t going to save us from going the way of the dinosaurs, based on the music in NASA’s concept video, the obvious comparisons to a Michael Bay movie isn’t lost on anyone.

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