According to Aviation Week, NASA’s budget request for 2014 will include $100 million for a robotic asteroid capture mission that will aim not only to find and capture a small asteroid but also to deliver it into the vicinity of the Moon.
SPACE.com reported that NASA officials were not allowed to comment on details of the agency’s 2014 budget request until April 10, when the Obama administration will finally unveil the complete federal budget request.
The mission’s concept was initially suggested by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology, in April 2012. NASA was attracted by the idea because it is expected to produce technology that could be used in future planetary exploration. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy probably recognized the idea as a viable concept to fulfill President Obama’s 2010 goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 by bringing the asteroid closer to home.
An asteroid capture mission, as conceived by the Keck study, should be able to robotically move the targeted space rock into a high lunar orbit or into the second Earth-Moon Lagrangian Point using a mechanism that has been described as a drawstring bag. This “bag” was envisioned to protect the asteroid as much as possible from breaking up en route, something that could happen if thrusters were to be placed on the body itself, or if the spacecraft attempted to push a fragile asteroid. When positioned near the Moon, the asteroid would be close enough for humans to land on it using NASA’s Orion vehicle. The mission was estimated to cost about $2.65 billion for a 500,000-kg carbonaceous target asteroid. Such an asteroid was determined to not pose any threat to Earth because it would have the density of a “dried mudball,” according to Keck’s members. The most difficult part would be to identify a suitable target since the optimal rock would have a small size, about 7 meters. Therefore it could be difficult to spot by telescope.
The hardware that NASA would possibly develop for such a mission would be useful also for the commercial companies involved in the asteroid mining business. Two U.S. firms, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have already announced plans to send private missions to mine asteroids. The companies are currently developing unmanned spacecraft and telescopes to identify asteroid targets.
If approved, the $100 million in funding would be divided among different directorates to start developing the technology necessary for the mission.
Below, Obama announced in April 2010, the goal of visiting an asteroid (Courtesy of History.com):