NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission Now Has Nothing to Do With Protecting Earth

NASA won't be redirecting any asteroids, after all.

Mar 25 2015, 8:45pm

​Screengrab: NASA

​Remember how NASA was planning on "​redirecting an asteroid" so the agency could learn how to protect the planet from catastrophe should a large asteroid end up on a collision course with Earth? Well, the new plan is to land on a massive asteroid, grab a small boulder, put that boulder in orbit around the Moon, and call it a day.

The asteroid redirection plan was already ​highly unpopular in Congress and even among many scientists—and so the agency announced on Wednesday that no redirecting will be done. Instead of capturing an asteroid or otherwise diverting its path, NASA will go with "Option B."

Originally, astronauts would have fully captured a small asteroid and moved it to orbit around the moon. During a follow up mission, astronauts would have visited the asteroid. In option B, astronauts will still visit the rock. But it'll just be a rock, a part of an asteroid that, if it hit us, could do serious damage.

Option A was pitched as game-changing; Option B is a fishing trip in space. Reading between the lines, it sounds as though NASA simply wasn't willing to take the risk necessary to actually redirect an asteroid after all.

NASA has always pitched the asteroid mission as one that will eventually help the agency send humans to Mars, a stepping stone, more or less. But it has never really articulated why it makes more sense to land on an asteroid than, say, land on the Moon again or simply take a Hail Mary shot direct to Mars. 

But, as a backup explanation, it has always said that redirecting an asteroid is going to serve as a good planetary defense mechanism. In a video posted last year, NASA said the mission ​would help develop "a capability that could help us defend Earth from impacts in the future." By capturing an entire asteroid or otherwise redirecting it, that makes sense; the redirection capabilities learned by orbiting it are much less clear.

NASA has now lost the planetary defense explanation as political cover for the mission, and the way NASA is funded—annually, like every other agency—it probably puts the whole thing in jeopardy.  ​Congress has always hated NASA's asteroid plan, and Option B is actually $100 million more expensive than option A, due to the robotic technology that will have to be developed to actually pick up a 15-foot boulder.

​Those who hold the keys to NASA's budget have been looking for reasons to cut the agency's budget, and the fact that the mission is no longer what was promised doesn't bode well for the mission's future—some have called it a bait-and-switch. NASA, meanwhile, says actually physically moving an asteroid wasn't worth the risk.

"The [asteroid] targets [for option A] are hard to characterize and the uncertainty around those gave us a little pause. I think we would have found one [eventually]," NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot said. "The risk of having a target we'd be comfortable with, and that we'd be able to get there—it's a one shot deal, we get out there, and it is what it is when we get there, versus having an option at the larger asteroid to have an option at what boulder we pick" made option B more attractive.

At least we know which boulder we'll probably be looking at: Lightfoot said Asteroid 2008 EV5, which was  ​identified as a possible target in 2012. Let's hope it has lots of lovely boulders on it.

Lightfoot said technologies developed using Option B would be "more extensible" to a future Mars mission, though he didn't expound on what parts of the mission would be useful for landing humans on Mars. That logic is hard to follow. Landing on an asteroid that's hurtling through space seems to have little to do with landing on Mars, which has a thin atmosphere that makes landing on it more technically challenging than landing on something without an atmosphere, such as the Moon.

So now, NASA has made an already unpopular, expensive mission even more expensive and has lost the whole we're-doing-this-to-save-the-world thing. Surely, there is something to be gained from the mission, it's still a new frontier, it's still something NASA wants to do—but will Congress see it that way?