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NASA's bid to capture an asteroid to be unveiled

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Apr 7, 2013, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Asteroid hunting seems to be the latest big buzz in space activity. Finding and tracking those that could hit Earth remains essential plus there has been increasing interest from commercial companies in mining them for profit.

But on top of that, it appears that plans for NASA to send astronauts to visit and walk on an asteroid are still firmly on the agenda according to advance information from a US government report.

Scenes such as that depicted in our main picture are still certainly a long way off and so remain science fiction. Before that, NASA plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to capture a smaller Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) just a few metres wide in 2019 and bring it into orbit around the Moon.

NASA’s next crew-carrying spaceship, Orion, would then fly four astronauts to the asteroid two years later to explore the chunk of space rock.

US Senator Bill Nelson, who chairs the Senate’s science and space subcommittee, said that $100 million will be invested in planning the mission when next year’s budget is announced next week.

But the mission sounds very close to a major study already conducted by NASA’s Keck Institute for Space Studies. Their report last year recommended a $2.6 billion mission quite literally to bag an asteroid and bring it home.

Asteroid bagging spacecraft

A robotic spacecraft prepares to bag its 7-metre, 500-ton target asteroid. Credit: Rick Sternbach/KISS

Under the Keck plan, the asteroid-snaring, robotic spacecraft would be launched by an Atlas V rocket. Then using solar power and ion propulsion, it would head off to chase a seven-metre asteroid with a mass of around 500 tons.

The craft would then wrap itself around the asteroid before dragging it back to place it in a high orbit around the Moon. Keck’s report suggested that flying to rendezvous with the asteroid, taking time to study it and then capture it, stop it spinning and transporting it to the Moon would take six to ten years. It is not clear why the new plan sees this all happening more quickly.

The Keck team said their Asteroid Capture and Return (ACR) mission would offer several benefits. It would give astronauts affordable experience in working in space around such an object and meet President Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.

Concept spacecraft

Concept design for the robotic spacecraft with its capture mechanism deployed. Credit: KISS

It would also help develop ways for astronauts and robots working together to extract valuable resources from the space rocks, such as water for drinking and fuel, and material to construct protective shielding against radiation, that would enable humans to embark on deep space missions.

Keck’s report added: “The availability of a multi-hundred-ton asteroid in lunar orbit could also stimulate the expansion of international cooperation in space as agencies work together to determine how to sample and process this raw material.

“The capture, transportation, examination, and dissection of an entire NEA would provide valuable information for planetary defense activities that may someday have to deflect a much larger near-Earth object.

“Finally, placing a NEA in lunar orbit would provide a new capability for human exploration not seen since Apollo. Such an achievement has the potential to inspire a nation. It would be mankind’s first attempt at modifying the heavens to enable the permanent settlement of humans in space.”