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NASA plan to grab asteroid could spur other technologies, too

April 12, 2013
Special to World Science  

A NASA mis­sion to catch an as­ter­oid and set it in or­bit around the moon could spur the de­vel­op­ment of use­ful, even life-saving tech­nolo­gies, says an ad­vo­ca­cy group for space ex­plora­t­ion.

The in­i­ti­a­tive, in­clud­ed in Pres­ident Oba­ma’s $17.7 bil­lion spend­ing plan for NASA in fis­cal year 2014, calls for as­tro­nauts to vis­it such a space rock by as early as 2021. The idea is to move it in­to a moon or­bit where hu­mans could access it.

A NA­SA an­i­ma­tion il­lus­trates one con­cept for a space mis­sion to cap­ture an as­ter­oid and put it in or­bit around the moon.


The plan is to “find, cap­ture and re­di­rect an as­ter­oid ro­b­otic­ally, and then vis­it it with as­tro­nauts to stu­dy it and re­turn sam­ples,” said Wil­liam Ger­sten­maier, NA­SA’s as­so­ci­ate ad­min­is­tra­tor for hu­man ex­plor­a­t­ion and oper­a­t­ions. 

“In Fis­cal Year 2014, NA­SA will beg­in de­vel­op­ing and test­ing pro­to­type cap­ture mech­a­nisms and con­cepts for crew in­ter­ac­tions with the as­ter­oid.” 

NASA’s budg­et pro­pos­al for the year pro­vides close to $100 mil­lion for the mis­sion, which is “tremen­dously im­por­tant,” said Mark Hop­kins, chair­man of the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee for the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Na­t­ional Space So­ci­e­ty. The group of space en­thu­si­asts and sci­en­tists pro­motes space ex­plora­t­ion and has ad­vo­cat­ed as­ter­oid cap­ture mis­sions for years.

“Robotic as­ter­oid cap­ture is the first step to ex­ploit­ing the vast ma­te­ri­al re­sources of the so­lar sys­tem for a hope­ful and pros­per­ous fu­ture for man­kind,” said Hop­kins.

“Even small as­ter­oids con­tain tre­men­dous wealth—pre­cious met­als, rare stra­te­gic met­als im­por­tant for sus­tain­a­ble de­vel­op­ment, raw ma­te­ri­als for in-space con­struc­tion, and volatiles for life sup­port and pro­pul­sion in space,” added Paul Wer­bos, ex­ec­u­tive vi­ce pres­ident of the group.

In a state­ment this week, the so­ci­e­ty al­so called the mis­sion “an im­por­tant pre­cur­sor to en­a­ble pri­vate in­dus­try to ac­cess such re­sources for the ben­e­fit of all man­kind and re­turn wealth to our world econ­o­my. One me­di­um sized as­ter­oid, 3554 Anum, is es­ti­mat­ed to con­tain $20 tril­lion of plat­i­num group met­als,” the state­ment not­ed.

“Robotic as­ter­oid cap­ture is al­so a key step to­ward an ef­fec­tive plan­e­tary de­fense. The mis­sion will ma­ture our abil­ity to cap­ture and de­flect a haz­ard­ous as­ter­oid—protecting civ­il­iz­a­tion from suf­fer­ing the same fate as the di­no­saurs. The search for suit­a­ble tar­gets will find huge num­bers of smaller, cur­rently un­known as­ter­oids which pose a very real me­te­or threat to ­ci­ties as ev­i­denced by the ex­plo­sion last month over Chel­ya­binsk, Rus­sia that in­jured over 1,000 peo­ple,” the state­ment went on.

Al­so, “robotic as­ter­oid cap­ture will drive im­prove­ments to so­lar elec­tric pro­pul­sion, a crit­i­cal en­a­bler of cost-ef­fec­tive trans­porta­t­ion in Earth-Lunar space and the in­ner so­lar sys­tem akin to the de­vel­op­ment of large ocean far­ing ves­sel­s—open­ing up pos­si­bil­i­ties for even more am­bi­tious mis­sions in the fu­ture.”

NASA As­so­ci­ate Ad­min­is­tra­tor for Space Tech­nol­o­gy Mi­chael Gazarik agreed, call­ing that tech­nol­o­gy “an es­sen­tial step to­ward fu­ture NASA hu­man and robotic ex­plora­t­ion for­ays in­to deep space.”


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A NASA mission to catch an asteroid and set it in orbit around the moon could spur the development of useful, even life-saving technologies, said an advocacy group for space exploration. The initiative, included in President Obama’s $17.7 billion spending plan for NASA in fiscal year 2014, calls for astronauts to visit such a space rock by as early as 2021. The idea is to move it into orbit around the moon where it could be visited by humans. The plan is to “find, capture and redirect an asteroid robotically, and then visit it with astronauts to study it and return samples,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “In Fiscal Year 2014, NASA will begin developing and testing prototype capture mechanisms and concepts for crew interactions with the asteroid.” NASA’s budget proposal for the year provides close to $100 million for the mission, which is “tremendously important,” said Mark Hopkins, chairman of the Executive Committee for the Washington, D.C.-based National Space Society. The group of space enthusiasts and scientists promotes space exploration and has advocated asteroid capture missions for years. “Robotic asteroid capture is the first step to exploiting the vast material resources of the solar system for a hopeful and prosperous future for mankind,” said Hopkins. “Even small asteroids contain tremendous wealth—precious metals, rare strategic metals important for sustainable development, raw materials for in-space construction, and volatiles for life support and propulsion in space,” added Paul Werbos, executive vice president for the group. In a statement this week, the society also called the mission “an important precursor to enable private industry to access such resources for the benefit of all mankind and return wealth to our world economy. One medium sized asteroid, 3554 Anum, is estimated to contain $20 trillion of platinum group metals,” the statement noted. “Robotic asteroid capture is also a key step toward an effective planetary defense. The mission will mature our ability to capture and deflect a hazardous asteroid—protecting civilization from suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. The search for suitable targets will find huge numbers of smaller, currently unknown asteroids which pose a very real meteor threat to cities as evidenced by the explosion last month over Chelyabinsk, Russia that injured over 1000 people,” the statement went on. Also, “robotic asteroid capture will drive improvements to solar electric propulsion, a critical enabler of cost-effective transportation in Earth-Lunar space and the inner solar system akin to the development of large ocean faring vessels—opening up possibilities for even more ambitious missions in the future.” NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology Michael Gazarik agreed, calling that technology “an essential step toward future NASA human and robotic exploration forays into deep space.”