On Friday, NASA announced that it will be soliciting ideas for its Asteroid Initiative, and will grant a total of six million dollars split between a maximum of 25 proposals. According to the press release, they are looking for “concept ideas for an alternate asteroid capture system, rendezvous sensor systems, secondary payloads, feasibility studies on adapting commercial spacecraft buses, and commercial and international partnership opportunities for the mission.” Proposals are due May 5 and winners will be announced July 1.
“We're in this sort of pre-formulation phase,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The goal right now, according to Williams, is “studying and gathering input, leading to a mission concept review that we'll have in early 2015, where we'll try and focus down to a specific concept, and then go develop and implement.”
The ultimate goal is to redirect the trajectory of an asteroid towards Earth, where it can be nudged into a secure lunar orbit. Once we've given the moon the ultimate gift—a moon of its very own—NASA will select a team of astronauts to crew the Orion spacecraft and the beefed-up SLS rocket, which will rendezvous with the space rock, and return samples of it to Earth. The deadline NASA has set for itself is 2025.
Asteroid capture missions are sure to be costly in the short term, but the long-term benefits are likely to far outweigh the initial seed money. As Motherboard's Jason Koebler reported earlier this week, prominent scientists have speculated that it will soon take the resources of three planets to satisfy the needs of the ever-waxing human population.
While NASA is interested in up close analysis of asteroids for purely scientific reasons, the real driver behind this initiative will probably be the development of mining technology. Asteroids are rich in materials like iron, nickel, and titanium, which could help stem the tide of resource consumption on Earth.
On top of that, some asteroids are packed with water, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, making them perfect candidates for potential deep space outposts—stepping stones that can be used to extend the human reach in our solar system. In this way, asteroid mines may not only augment our continued survival on Earth, but help us achieve a future beyond our weary planet.
An asteroid capture concept design via NASA.
Much like the recently announced Lunar CATALYST program, the Asteroid Initiative seems especially geared to the private sector. “If the commercial satellite developers or other spacecraft developers see an inexpensive way of using the bus architecture as a framework for developing an inexpensive or affordable way of doing the asteroid-redirect vehicle development, we would be very interested in that,” said James Reuther, deputy associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Becoming the first corporation to help capture and study an asteroid would require a gargantuan initial investment. But forward-thinking companies will no doubt grasp that eventually, there will be attractive returns for paving this road. It will be interesting to see who will step up to the plate and partner with NASA in these early stages.
It bears mentioning that the dream of redirecting an asteroid into our planet's backyard is only one of two objectives set by NASA's Asteroid Initiative. The other has to do with brainstorming how to keep asteroids on a collision course away from the planet.
With the enormous advances in tracking NEOs, we are now able to see a little better in the dark, and the view is frightening. Close-calls are abundant, and the meteor that exploded over Cheylabinsk last year—which was undetected when it hit—is a reminder that these errant space rocks pose an urgent existential threat.
Asteroid capture missions are thus an obvious twofer when it comes to our continuing survival on the planet. Whether it's nudging them toward the Earth for resource mining or nudging them away for self-protection, we need the Asteroid Initiative. Let's hope NASA receives the cutting-edge proposals it has requested, and that in the future, we'll see more than six million pledged to this crucial field.