By Thomas Scott
In February, an asteroid passed the Earth by a margin which was almost too close for comfort.
Now, NASA hopes to receive $100 million from the Obama Administration to fund a mission to grab hold of an asteroid and transport it into lunar orbit. That expenditure will go towards planning the mission and finding an ideal asteroid, which will have to be 25 feet across and weigh one million pounds.
A 25-foot rock is suitable because it would burn up upon entry into the Earth’s atmosphere if anything were to go wrong with retrieval.
The Obama Administration had a goal for 2025 to be the year in which a human would walk on an asteroid. Yet the new plan, proposed by Florida Democrat and former astronaut Bill Nelson, would reach that goal four years ahead of schedule.
Nelson chairs the Senate subcommittee on science and space.
Before a spacewalk can occur however, the asteroid will have to be towed into orbit by an automated spacecraft.
Once the probe arrives at the asteroid of choice, it will ensnare the rock by engaging what Nelson calls “a baggie with a drawstring.”
The lawmaker elaborated, claiming that after the asteroid is acquired “you attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”
Test flights for the mission have been given the tentative date of 2017. The so-called capture mission will allegedly occur in 2019.
At a press conference on Friday, Nelson remarked that the mission is “a clever concept. Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”
Once the asteroid is brought back into high lunar orbit, the crew of an Orion space capsule, launched after the return of the automated craft would get close to the asteroid.
The asteroid would maintain a “halo orbit” at Earth-moon L2, a part of space that is roughly 40,389 miles beyond the moon.
From there, astronauts could perform tests and conduct research on pressing topics such as planetary defense or a Mars mission. Astronauts could also look into mining the asteroid.
Resource extraction on a near-Earth object could yield a bonanza of knowledge for future attempts to mine asteroids.
The plan for the mission follows a plan drafted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at CalTech.
According to the report, the attainability of such a project has been “enabled by… key developments,” such as “implement…powerful solar electric propulsion systems to enable transportation of the captured [near-Earth asteroids].”
The automated craft will have to use ion thrusters, since the amount of fuel required for chemical propellants will most likely rule out that mode of transportation.
Ion thrusters gain speed by pushing electrically charged atoms away from the vehicle.
The catch with this approach is that it produces very little thrust in the short term. In order for the spacecraft to achieve a reasonable clip, the ion engine has to operate for an extended period of time.
For the 2019 mission, two large solar panels will have to be implemented in order for the ion engine to have the power it needs.
When President Barack Obama announced his about-face in space policy back in April of 2010, it caused an outcry from several sources including Apollo astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell.
The President decided to dispense with his predecessors plan to return to the moon by 2020 in lieu of a plan to visit an asteroid by 2025 in order to pave the way for a mission to Mars by the middle of the 2030s.
The president committed to enlarging the space agency’s funding by $6 billion over five years. Since 2010 however, the President has cut NASA’s funding from 0.52 percent of the federal budget to 0.48 percent.
It will be interesting to see if NASA can acquire its desired $100 million and then, if NASA can successfully place their desired astronaut into lunar orbit in the next eight years.