In recent years, political steps have been taken in the form of a presidential directive. With that directive in place, NASA is ready to take a serious look at how we could capture and sample an asteroid while in space.
According to a recent press release, the space agency is not planning to do this alone. On March 21, 2014, NASA issued an announcement stating that the agency is looking for proposals for various aspects of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.
According to NASA, the main objective of the mission is to:
“Rendezvous with, capture, and redirect an entire near- Earth asteroid, with a mass of up to ~1,000t, into a stable lunar orbit by the first half of the next decade.”
The plan is to achieve the mission’s objectives in three separate phases or segments, which consist of Asteroid Identity, Asteroid Redirect, and Asteroid Explore. The recent call for proposals covers each of these segments.
Asteroid Capture Systems
According to the request, NASA is looking for asteroid capture systems, rendezvous sensors, and ideas on adapting commercial spacecraft to be used for the mission. When successfully implemented, these concepts would allow NASA to identify, collect and even store asteroids in deep space.
The space agency is going to award upwards of $6 million dollars to a maximum of 25 accepted proposals for capture systems utilizing deployment structures and robotic arms/manipulators, rendezvous sensors that help to facilitate automated docking/proximity operations, and commercial spacecraft design/construction that could be used in the overall mission.
NASA is also interested in a number of partnerships that would help to deliver secondary payloads of either scientific equipment or crew members. The hope is that these partnerships would lead to resource acquisition and even commercial activities.
The NASA BAA states that a study of the possible future relationships derived from the mission and its findings could lead to more manned missions to asteroids (or other near-Earth objects) as well as more opportunities to research and explore deep space. Additionally, some future relationships could very well lead to not only the acquisition of resources but also the commercialization of space based on those resources.
The success of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is so important because NASA views asteroids as proverbial stepping stones towards Mars. William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, contends, “To reach Mars, we’ll rely on new technologies and advanced capabilities proven through the Asteroid Initiative.”
Even though NASA appears to be positive that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission is the clear way to get to Mars, many in the scientific community disagree.
Asteroids and Mars
Last year, a number of scientific media outlets, such as Discovery News, reported on how many scientists outside of NASA believed the Asteroid Retrieval Mission was nothing more than a publicity stunt to draw attention to the program by using the sci-fi staple of asteroid mining as bait.
Some scientists, including Paul Spudis, senior scientist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, believe that little could be gained, in regards to a Mars mission, from capturing an asteroid. Spudis believes that better technologies and lessons learned could be acquired from more research and expeditions to the Moon because of the similarities in gravity and environment.
Naysayers notwithstanding, NASA believes that asteroids are the key to getting to Mars. And if the call for proposals is successful, the space agency may acquire the technology to capture and mine an asteroid in deep space. This would not only be one step closer to Mars, but would also bring to life a long-standing remnant of the sci-fi genre.
(1) NASA (linked above)