There’s been an increased interest in asteroids ever since a meteor exploded in the sky above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February, an event almost immediately followed by the closest known flyby of a football-sized asteroid.
That’s why NASA hopes to invest a significant chunk of federal money into a plan that involves “bagging” a small asteroid and dragging it back into orbit around the moon, later to be visited by astronauts who will bring back samples.
In President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, unveiled on Wednesday, the space agency called for a spending total of $17.7 billion, with $105 million of that money dedicated to identifying potentially hazardous asteroids, NASA said in a news conference on Wednesday.
Of that, $78 million would go toward the asteroid retrieval initiative.
If successful, this would be the “first-ever mission to identify, capture, and relocate an asteroid,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
Though wrought with unexpected challenges, the plan to wrangle a fast-rotating space rock actually seems pretty simple on paper.
NASA released an animation of the operation, which we’ve broken into slides.
The first thing NASA has to do is identify a suitable asteroid target. The ideal space rock is one that's small (about 25 feet wide) and close to Earth.
The size of the space rock important. If something were to go wrong, this asteroid will be small enough to burn up before it enters Earth's atmosphere.
SEP uses solar panels to turn sunlight into electricity. The electricity powers an engine that propels the spacecraft. This isn't a new concept — it's already used on some communication satellites — but improving it will be crucial for long-term human space exploration.
To begin with, the asteroid will be spinning. The spacecraft will have to stop the object from whipping around in order to catch it.
The plan combines several goals: To test new space technologies, to study methods for pushing a hazardous asteroid away from Earth in the future, and to lay the groundwork for planting astronauts on Mars in the next two decades.
One thing this mission is not designed for is planetary defence, Ed Lu, a physicist and former NASA astronaut, said at a congressional hearing on Wednesday, April 10.
Although NASA has requested $78 million for the asteroid initiative in the 2014 budget, the total cost of the mission will be much steeper.
The final figure is closer to $1.1 billion, a senior administration official told NBCNews' Alan Boyle.
In addition to providing valuable information about preventing the Earth from being hit, the plan opens the door for mining asteroids. Two companies — Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries — have already come forward with plans to do just that.
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