June 24, 2013
Faced with congressional recalcitrance over its plan to capture a small asteroid and nudge it into lunar orbit for hands-on study, NASA is emphasizing the link between finding a target and cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could devastate the planet if they hit.
As a bonus, top agency managers say the mission could advance human-exploration capabilities even it does not catch a space rock. The first flight of the Orion capsule with a crew on board will be to the high retrograde lunar orbit planned for a captured asteroid, they say, because of the lessons it can teach or future missions deeper into the Solar System.
“Even if there isn't an asteroid there, there are certainly opportunities to test all the systems that we've got,” says Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot. “There are all sorts of things that we are going to test for the first time.”
Lightfoot, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and the agency's top four mission directors briefed industry on the asteroid-capture plan June 18, announcing a broad-brush “grand challenge” to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.”
Central to that effort is a request for information (RFI) released during the industry workshop seeking ideas from any source in the U.S. and abroad that could help detect NEOs that might hit Earth some day, and help develop the asteroid-capture mission included in the agency's fiscal 2014 budget request (AW&ST April 29, p. 36) as a step toward avoiding a collision.
The RFI seeks suggestions in six areas—observing asteroids from the ground and space; concepts for “redirecting” asteroids weighing as much as 1,000 tons into translunar space; demonstrating ways to deflect asteroids large enough to do significant damage to Earth in a collision; systems for capturing a small asteroid; crew systems for exploring an asteroid, including suits and translation aids such as the Russian Strela boom used on the International Space Station (ISS) (see illustration); and partnerships for accomplishing the work.
“NASA is interested in ideas and concepts for potential partnerships to support both aspects of the Asteroid Initiative: enhancements to planetary defense activities and the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” the RFI states.