NASA will include in its 2014 budget plans for a $100 million mission to locate an asteroid, capture it using a robotic spacecraft and guide it somewhere near the moon for human study, according to a report from Aviation Week.
The idea was proposed last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology. Since then, both NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have become interested. It is partially in response to President Obama's goal to send astronauts to an asteroid close to Earth by 2025. Since the goal seems unlikely given current spending limits, moving an asteroid closer to Earth would make meeting the deadline an easier task.
Keck members briefed their proposal to a National Research Council human-spaceflight technical feasibility panel on March 28. They claimed that the mission would not create any threat for Earth, since the asteroid's density would be that of a "dried mudball." Finding the right target would likely be the biggest hurdle, since it would have to be a smaller, slower-moving asteroid. The target asteroid would also have to be on a heliocentric orbit, returning close to Earth in the 2020s.
According to the Keck study, the project would cost about $2.65 billion. It would involve using solar-electric propulsion to reach a 1.1 million- pound asteroid and a deployable capture bag to surround it. The asteroid could be reached using an Orion crew vehicle launched by a heavy-lift Space Launch System. The mission would be divided between NASA's human exploration, science and space technology committees.
The technology could be potentially useful in deflecting asteroids on a collision course with Earth. At a hearing on Tuesday March 19, NASA officials stated there was very little that could be done if an asteroid were to head for our planet. This followed a meteorite explosion in February, when about 1,500 Russians were injured by flying glass and other effects of the impact.
Another potential use of the technology is for asteroid mining, which many are betting on as the future of mining resources like nickel, iron ore and precious metals.