NASA Asteroid Capture Mission: First Real Step in Utilizing Extraterrestrial Resources

By Keith Cowing
March 29, 2013
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NASA is about to get a chance to try something totally new: instead of just visting or landing on things in space, it is going to go grab one of those things – something that is rather huge – and bring it back to Earth. Details will be formally announced on 10 April 2013 when the new budget is rolled out.

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology: “NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request will include $100 million for a new mission to find a small asteroid, capture it with a robotic spacecraft and bring it into range of human explorers somewhere in the vicinity of the Moon.”

Interesting. First the President challenges NASA to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 – but there was nothing in place to do so having just cancelled Ares and Orion. Then Orion came back and Ares was reincarnated as SLS. Then NASA loses interest in the asteroid thing and comes up with alternate plans to send people to L2 (and maybe elsewhere). Then the Keck study looks at how to grab a small NEO and bring it to near-Earth space – L2 for example. Then Charlie Bolden makes his cryptic comments at the NAS in December 2012: “when the President announced that an asteroid would be the next destination for NASA’s human spaceflight program, he did not say NASA had to fly all the way to an asteroid. What matters is the ability to put humans with an asteroid.”. Well, Bolden was referring to this idea which was still in flux as part of the budget process.

Add in the close approach of asteroid DA14 and the Chelyabinsk meteor impact, back-to-back congressional hearings on asteroids, and forces have all seemed to have coalesced behind a rather gutsy idea – grabbing an asteroid and bringing it back to our neighborhood. Under this plan, the robotic solar electric propelled spacecraft would leave in 2018 and perhaps as early as 2016 – possibly while the President is still in office – and bring it back to L2. A human crew would visit the parking location at L2 on the first crewed mission of Orion/SLS in 2021 – four years earlier than the President’s original goal. Not only does this meet the President’s goal, it merges the sometimes divergent SLS/Orion interests and the interests of the L2 proponents with the intentions of the White House.

One would hope that as NASA implements this concept that they use it as a catalyst for new ways of looking for asteroids and dealing with the threat they may pose as well as other technologies needed of the utilization of cis-lunar space, the Moon and elsewhere. Moreover, although a commercial solution could certainly be found to do this cheaper, one would hope that this initial NASA effort would be conducted with the full intention of fostering commercial means to build and expand upon what NASA wants to do.

That said, the fact that we are now capable of going out and grabbing an asteroid and moving it to a place that we have chosen signals the first major step in the utilization of extraterrestrial resources by human civilization. We are embarking on the rearrangement of our solar system to better suit human needs.

That’s a paradigm shift folks.

Bolden: NASA Does Not Have To Actually Go To An Asteroid, earlier post
Making the Case for Human Missions to Asteroids, Space Quarterly
NASA Really Doesn’t Want to Do That Whole Asteroid Thing, earlier post
Asteroid Return Mission Study, Keck Institute for Space Studies

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.