June 28, 2013
Credit: Keck Institute for Space Studies
European space agencies will spend the rest of the summer evaluating whether there is a role for them in NASA’s proposed asteroid-capture mission, after Administrator Charles Bolden pitched the idea during visits to agency partners.
Jean Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), told Bolden he has set up a multi-agency working group headed by ESA human-spaceflight chief Thomas Reiter “tasked to elaborate a coherent approach with regard to your new initiative.”
Representatives of the national space agencies of France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. will participate in the working group, with a report due from ESA to NASA in September, Dordain told Bolden in a June 20 letter.
“[W]e welcome this new initiative and are ready to support discussions on potential cooperation that would strengthen ongoing and future space exploration activities to be performed in an international framework,” Dordain wrote.
However, he noted that ESA’s human spaceflight strategy includes the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars. NASA’s idea is to capture a small near-Earth asteroid, nudge it into high retrograde lunar orbit with solar electric propulsion, and send astronauts in an Orion crew vehicle to study it.
ESA is providing service-module propulsion and other hardware for the Orion, based on its work with the Automated Transfer Vehicle developed to deliver cargo to the ISS.
“The implementation of the ESA strategy relies on cooperation with international partners, and NASA in particular, allowing to fulfill respective priorities and to develop synergies between identified destinations, without excluding potential other destinations of high interest for space exploration,” Dordain told Bolden in his letter.
The asteroid-capture idea has met a lackluster response at best in Congress, which must fund the new mission. The House Science Committee’s initial draft reauthorization bill for the space agency goes so far as to prohibit use of authorized funds to develop an asteroid-capture spacecraft.