NASA Asteroid Mission: How Will Astronauts Lasso a Space Rock?


Last week, NASA announced plans to capture a near-Earth asteroid (NEA) and bring it closer to the planet in the hopes of sending a manned mission to it by 2025. This ambitious plan may sound like science fiction, but represents years of combined innovation by NASA scientists and the U.S.’s brightest engineers.

In fact, the White House and NASA officials have already apportioned $104 million for the initial needs of the mission, namely the development of surveying technology and the identification of a suitable asteroid. This is a portion of the proposed $17.7 billion to fund NASA's overall operations for fiscal year 2014. However, as sequestration continues to play out, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has decided to cut 0.2% across-the-board for all government agencies due to a weak economic forecast, which could deflate the space agency's budget by $1.24 billion.

Despite these hurdles, agency scientists are driving forward and just recently passed a critical test in a NASA-funded asteroid tracking sensor. This could be the key in designing the telescope that will identify an asteroid that is close enough to Earth and just the right size, which is the first step in the planned mission.

After the identification process, scientists can use already available technology and send a robotic spacecraft that could push the proposed 25-foot, 500-ton near-Earth asteroid into Earth's high orbit. As shown in the below video, NASA plans to use an unmanned spacecraft using a solar-powered engine to reach the object and encase it in a large, flexible covering — after which, it will trek millions of miles back towards Earth and stay there until astronauts can reach it.

NASA can now leverage its advancements in its Orion MPCV (Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle) and the so-called Space Launch System, which is the agency's next-generation, heavy-lift rocket that can take cargo and crew beyond Earth’s orbit. The proposed visit to this lassoed asteroid would provide a critical test of the spacecraft and crew’s ability for deep space exploration.

Scientists as well as space entrepreneurs are salivating over the prospects from this mission. Not only will it provide scientists with the practical experience of maneuvering an asteroid, which could be helpful in planetary defense, it will provide substantial research, training, and commercial opportunities.

Since asteroids are some of the oldest objects in the universe, bringing one to a place where it could be studied intensely would allow scientists to gain a much better understanding of what that early solar system was like.

Moreover, President Obama has stated that, ultimately, the goal is to send a manned mission to Mars. "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow," said the President at a space policy speech at the Kennedy Space Center.

If that is to be achieved, astronauts need to train by traveling to deep-space destinations. An asteroid orbiting the moon, or at the unique second Lagrange point near the moon where the gravitational pull of Earth and the moon are about equal, would provide such a destination.

Additionally, private asteroid-mining companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are praising NASA's efforts, stating that it will help private firms to achieve their own goals of identifying useful asteroids for the purpose of robotically mining them for water, precious metals like platinum, and other valuable materials.

All in all, the prospects for this mission seem optimistic despite the major obstacles ahead. With the White House, NASA, private mining enterprises, and all science nerds out there behind the mission, there are signs of the beginnings of the next generation of human space exploration.