But NASA’s plans to tow an asteroid into orbit around the Moon are caught in political crossfire.
NASA has completed its internal review of the asteroid redirect mission, its plan to capture a near-Earth asteroid and bring it closer to Earth. The review brought space agency bosses from all over the US together to examine and assess the concepts for every phase of the mission, «The agency’s science, technology and human-exploration teams are working together to better understand near-Earth asteroids,» said NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot, «including ones potentially hazardous to our planet; demonstrate new technologies and to send humans farther from home than ever before.»
The asteroid redirect mission is NASA’s plan to launch a small, unmanned probe to a near-Earth asteroid with an estimated diameter of 8.2 metres (27 feet) and a mass of about 500,000 kilos (1.1 million pounds), similar to that of the International Space Station. Once it has arrived, the current plan is to inflate a giant bag to capture the asteroid and then tow it into a high lunar orbit.
Here, the scientists could conduct research on the asteroid. A manned mission could properly explore it and potentially, asteroid-mining techniques could be practiced on it. The current time frame for this is to have a capture mission in progress by the year 2019 and an asteroid in orbit around the Moon by 2021.
Managers at the meeting also took into account over 400 responses to its request for ideas and information, drawn from industry, universities and also the public. NASA is considering these among the concepts it has rated most highly, with the asteroid redirect mission being included in US President Obama’s budget request for 2014.
The review hasn’t been without its obstacles though, and the mission is by no means a foregone conclusion. Politics barred the way to space progress as the Congressional science committee chose to shoot the asteroid redirect mission down in favour of a return to the Moon with a view to setting up a base there, before setting its sights on Mars. A full-house vote will ultimately determine the fate of this mission in its current form, although a tactfully worded version of bill might still give NASA license to go ahead and try to capture an asteroid.
Among the reasons to justify the $2.6-billion mission is that NASA will learn how to manoeuvre massive objects around in space, which will prove vital in any eventuality where a large asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Lighter and thinner solar panels will also be developed for the mission, which could be used for upcoming missions like the proposed manned mission to Mars. Finally, if NASA can find an asteroid of particular interest, it will make a fine subject for a variety of scientific pursuits.