NASA wants to corral an asteroid

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s been a while since NASA’s been known as a place for space cowboys.

But the nickname could make a comeback if the space agency can pull off a new mission that even supporters admit sounds buck-wild: corralling an asteroid with a spacecraft so future astronauts can go visit it.

Obama administration officials said the operation has the potential to jump-start a human exploration program that has floundered since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle. The White House will include $105 million to begin work on the project in its 2014 budget.

“This mission will send humans farther than they have ever been before, and (it would be the) first ever redirection of (an) asteroid for exploration and sampling,” noted NASA officials in a mission outline presented to Congress this week and obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

If lawmakers approve, the plan calls on NASA to launch an unmanned spacecraft as soon as 2017 on a mission to “capture” a small asteroid and drag it near the moon, possibly to a point roughly 277,000 miles from Earth where competing gravitational forces would allow it to “sit” there.

Astronauts, riding a new NASA rocket and capsule, then would visit the asteroid as early as 2021.

“If the American people are excited about it, they (lawmakers) will be, too,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., adding that he thinks the public is “fascinated” with asteroids thanks to disaster movies such as “Armageddon” and recent near-misses that real space rocks have had with Earth.

But the plan faces several hurdles — and not just the rocket science.

Foremost is convincing Congress, and a skeptical public, that spending an estimated $2.6 billion on the mission is a worthwhile investment. That’s in addition to the $3 billion annually that NASA already devotes to building its new Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.

Then there’s the basic question of why.

“You have to get over the first shock, and I’m worried editorial writers will be like: ‘Huh? You lost your mind,’ ” acknowledged Lou Friedman, who co-authored a 2012 report that suggested the idea. “But if you get into it, (the mission) is audacious as sending humans to the moon. I think it will restore confidence in America’s technological capability and NASA’s can-do spirit.”

As proposed, the asteroid mission would begin with research — $78 million in 2014 to begin design work on the robotic spacecraft that would capture the asteroid, and an additional $27 million to begin searching the cosmos for an asteroid to grab. The ideal rock would be 20 to 30 feet in diameter and weigh 500 tons.

A 2012 study done by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, a think tank based at the California Institute of Technology, envisioned a small probe that would launch aboard an Atlas V rocket. Once in space, it would use its solar-electric engines to cruise to an asteroid and then attempt to capture it in a cup-shaped container described as an “inflatable asteroid capture bag.”

Even NASA admits this stage would be the “most technically challenging aspect of the mission,” as the asteroid would be traveling at thousands of miles per hour and spinning rapidly. The probe would have to first match the asteroid’s speed and spin. It would then position itself so that the asteroid drifts into its storage space — and pull it shut like a drawstring bag.

“Since the asteroid would be much more massive than the spacecraft, it is perhaps better to think of this as the asteroid capturing the spacecraft,” noted the Keck study.

The probe would then tug the asteroid to an orbit near the moon to await a visit by NASA astronauts. The Keck study estimated the whole operation could take six to 10 years, although NASA officials insist they can do it sooner to meet their 2021 deadline of a human mission.

By any measure, it’s an ambitious operation that would test a wide variety of NASA skills — from technology development to human spaceflight.

But there’s still the question of why.

From NASA’s perspective, the mission checks several boxes.

First, it gives purpose to the huge new SLS rocket and Orion capsule that are costing NASA about $3 billion a year to build, with a first test flight scheduled no earlier than 2017. The SLS has been criticized as a “rocket to nowhere” — as its mission has been defined only vaguely since the program’s 2011 unveiling — and the asteroid operation would give it a specific goal.

It also would meet President Barack Obama’s challenge to NASA to visit an asteroid by 2025.

Finally, its estimated cost of $2.6 billion, not including the SLS and Orion, fits within NASA’s long-range-budget expectations. It would be much cheaper than a manned flight to the moon’s surface or a longer-range mission to an asteroid that hasn’t been tugged close to the moon.

“It gives us a place to go but one we can reach with existing systems,” Friedman said.

It’s the kind of rationale that makes sense in the space community.

But NASA likely has some work to do in convincing the general public. Though the flight would make history, sending astronauts to a tiny asteroid lacks the punch of, say, a Mars landing.

Supporters said they understand that. But they argue that getting to Mars — or even doing more on the moon — would be impossible without intermediate steps such as this. Asteroids are “interesting objects in their own right, but the main purpose is as a stepping stone of exploration,” Friedman said

Planning documents also make another case: The spacecraft developed by NASA could be a prototype of one that could defend the planet against a rogue asteroid. That’s been a hot topic since a 55-foot asteroid exploded over Russia in February, injuring more than 1,000 people, and NASA acknowledged to Congress it would be helpless if a larger, more-deadly asteroid were reported on a collision course with Earth.

There’s also the possibility of mining the asteroid for rare materials such as platinum. Though it’s unknown whether visiting astronauts would set foot on the asteroid, it’s certain any mission would recover rock samples. This could be a first step in developing techniques to mine asteroids in the future.

The rise of this program, however, likely means the death of another.

NASA chief Charlie Bolden pitched the White House last year on the idea of building a small space station near where NASA intends to drag the asteroid; administration officials said that pricey proposal has been shelved in favor of one viewed as more viable given NASA’s annual budget of about $18 billion.

“We’ve had a succession of (human spaceflight) missions that didn’t pan out financially; it would be nice to have one that did,” said Howard McCurdy, a space-policy expert at American University.