27 August 2013

NASA plans mission to capture asteroids using a big space bag

NASA released new details on its proposed mission to divert a local asteroid into an accessible orbit today. The plan relies on a combination of already-launched proven hardware and some of the cutting edge technology still in development. The first step — picking and choosing a potential target — would be handled by the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). WISE was an infrared telescope that launched in 2009 with a two-year mission to image 99% of the visible sky in infrared wavelengths. Once this mission completed successfully, NASA assigned the craft a second four-month mission to track and discover near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOs that don’t reflect visible light, like small asteroids, can still be detected by their heat emissions.

The Russian meteorite explosion earlier this year put a new emphasis on the importance of tracking NEOs; the object that detonated in the skies above Chelyabinsk was too small to have been detected by other means. WISE has been in hibernation since the conclusion of its second mission, but was in perfect working order when NASA last communicated with the satellite in September, 2012. If all goes as planned, NASA would use WISE to find a target asteroid in an appropriate orbit.

Once that’s done, the next phase of the mission involves launching an unmanned probe to intercept the target and drag it back into a retrievable position — probably by wrapping a bag around it. While this might sound goofy (and require some hefty materials science engineering) keep in mind that we’re talking about a very modest rock. A crew would then be dispatched on an Orion capsule mated to the upcoming heavy lifter variant of the Space Launch System to retrieve samples of the asteroid and return them to Earth.

How grabbing space rocks helps us get to Mars and safeguard Earth

The plan has been criticized by Congress, where the House predictably created a budget that forbade NASA from any asteroid capture mission. This is rather short-sighted considering the generally recognized need to work on plans for asteroid diversion. Bagging and dragging a small rock is the only way to learn about the systems necessary for diverting the course of larger ones, and an asteroid doesn’t need to be particularly large to cause devastating damage to a city or region. This is a situation where the only way to learn what works is to start trying.

Many of the small asteroids that would be potential capture targets are thought to contain minerals from the very early stages of the solar system’s formation, which means they’d be a useful means of investigating theories on how planets and planetoids form. The mission would stretch NASA’s unmanned capabilities for probes and satellites — a useful factor when discussing exploration of targets like Europa or Titan — and would serve as a test of the Orion capsule and SLS.

One of the oddities of space funding in America is that while the House has poured a significant amount of money into the development of next-generation spacecraft, it has yet to approve a single mission for actually going anywhere. The ISS’ funding situation is uncertain past 2020, while the first Space Launch System manned launch is tentatively planned for 2021. Funding extensions could keep the ISS in orbit through 2028, but that would require substantial re-commitment that the United States has yet to offer.

Launching a mission of this sort doesn’t directly impact a Mars trip, but it does serve as a test of complex systems that might well be used in an eventual Mars Shot, including the development of thinner, lighter solar panels. It’s an opportunity for scientific exploration and, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, it’s relatively cheap. Given the current political climate, though, the asteroid capture mission — despite this new offensive — may be lost in space.

Now read: Earth acts as a giant particle accelerator, creating the dangerous Van Allen radiation belts


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