You’d be forgiven for thinking this story just might be belated April Fools Day joke, but Nasa has indeed confirmed plans to capture an asteroid and place it in Earth’s orbit for study by 2025. The plan is even backed by US president Barack Obama, who will be be setting aside a generous $100 million in tomorrow’s 2014 budget. The Nasa budget will be discussed by Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden in a media teleconference at 15:00 EDT tomorrow.
Astronauts Visit Deep Space Astroid As Part of Bigger Plan
The plan to capture an asteroid and bring it closer to Earth isn’t exactly a new one. Barack Obama outlined his goal to have humanity visit a deep space asteroid by the year 2015 in a Nasa conference back in 2010. His plan also includes the development of faster space shuttles and a modified Orion capsule for emergency return flights. But these are simply steps towards Obama’s ultimate goal of seeing man visit Mars by the mid-2030’s.
As crazy as it sounds, capturing an asteroid and bringing it closer to Earth would see Obama’s goals achieved much more quickly, safely and cheaply. Having an asteroid orbiting Earth at a similar distance to the Moon, would reduce the journey of a manned space craft from several months to a few days. This in turn, would hasten the analysis of any data collected from the asteroid.
Asteroid Retrieval will Involve Solar Propulsion, Robotic Space Craft and a Big Bag
The first step in Nasa’s plan is to locate a suitably sized asteroid of 7-10 metres in diameter, and roughly 500 tons in weight. By 2017 a highly advanced, robotic spacecraft will be sent out to wait in the path of the oncoming asteroid. Then by 2019, the spacecraft will capture the asteroid and bring it back to Earth using a state-of-the-art, solar energised propulsion system. Finally, the craft will bring the asteroid into alignment with the Moon’s orbit, or possibly just beyond it, at which point manned missions to analyse the asteroid will commence.
But just how will the robotic spacecraft capture an asteroid? The head of Nasa’s Near Earth Object Donald Yeomans, who monitors close-by asteroids, gave the following explanation.
A baggie with a drawstring. You bag it. You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.
Capturing an Asteroid will Bring about a New Age of Space Research
The plan sure sounds like science fiction, but Nasa are confident that the potential gains to the scientific community and humanity in general, will outweigh any initial scepticism from the public.
Samples taken by the asteroid once it arrives to Earth will offer huge clues into the materials that made up the solar system during its early years. Depending on the composition of the asteroid, these experiments may open up very serious discussions concerning the mining of other deep space asteroids for rare minerals.
But of greatest importance to Nasa and the American government is developing counter-measures to possible Earth-bound space objects; a threat that has been made very realistic after the collision of an asteroid with the Chelyabinsk region of Russia back in February.
The American government currently spends $20 million every year in efforts to detect asteroids and assess their threat level, but research carried out on Nasa’s asteroid will hopefully reduce that cost. In fact, out of the $100 million Obama will set aside tomorrow, $73 million will go to the asteroid retrieval mission, whereas the remaining $27 million will go to advancing Nasa’s asteroid detection technology here on Earth.
For those concerned about the idea of Nasa brining an asteroid home in a big bag can relax. The 7-10 metre diameter of the asteroid they aim to capture is half the size of the one that hit Russia, and would burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere before it even reaches the ground.
Ultimately though, Nasa’s retrieval of an asteroid will result in a massive leap in space exploration technology and will be an essential step towards the ultimate goal of having man step foot on our neighbouring Red Planet.