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Obama-NASA Asteroid Retrieval Mission

In April 2013, the Obama Administration submitted the NASA budget for 2014, and it included $ 105 million for the first year of funding for a mission to retrieve a small asteroid of roughly 7 to 10 meters diameter, using propulsion, to move it into a high Earth orbit, possibly a high lunar orbit.

The origin of this mission was a study by the private Keck Institute titled Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study which was published in April 2012. Basically, the Keck Institute mission concept was pitched to Obama's White House in 2012.

(Notably, the Keck Institute's report was published around the same time as the Planetary Resources, Inc., announcement that it was privately funding asteroid detection telescopes.)

The project discussed by NASA would have a rocket launch the spacecraft in 2017, arrive at the asteroid in 2019, and bring it back to high Earth orbit by 2021. (This is actually sooner than the Keck Institute study, which had a timeline for the asteroid to arrive in 2025.)

The total cost of the mission would be $ 2.6 billion thru 2021. After that, astronauts would go work on the asteroid in high Earth orbit.

The main goals are:

  • Develop and demonstrate the technology to change an asteroid's orbit, in case we detect one headed on a collision course with Earth.

  • Develop the ability for asteroids to work in space far beyond the space station in low Earth orbit.

  • Develop technologies to mine and utilize extraterrestrial resources to "live off the land".

  • Develop technologies which would be useful for a human mission to Mars.

Naturally, its promoters have pointed out how some traditional interest groups will benefit, in order to garner political support. However, in my opinion, they haven't promoted the exciting prospects of space industrialization and human colonization enough.

How far this goes in the funding process has yet to be seen.

At this point in time, these tiny asteroids of 7 to 10 meters in diameter are extremely difficult to detect, so we don't have many in our database. The vast majority of asteroids we know about are much larger than this. Therefore, we need to quickly discover and map the trajectories of many more asteroids. This is what Planetary Resources Inc. and others are trying to do.

(By comparison, the Russian meteor of 2013 was about 17 meters in diameter, and was entirely undetected until it struck. However, 7 meter wide generally burn up in the upper atmosphere harmlessly, and asteroids this size probably pass near Earth fairly often without touching the atmosphere, just undetected.)

It would also be good to have multiple targets because if the launch date slips much, then an asteroid can "get away" since they usually have short launch window dates before they can go too far past an economical diversion trajectory.

The mission will also require we deploy a larger array of our usual electric thrusters, and/or significantly scale up the size of each unit, to consume 30-50 kW of power continuously.

None of this is a huge challenge, but it must be done as a dependency for the mission to stay on schedule. Since it is government funded, there are potential bureaucratic delays and further dependencies.

Nonetheless, it's great to see these ideas being promoted so seriously, especially since the private sector could do it at a fraction the cost if a company ever took interest ...




PERMANENT.com > Asteroids, Near Earth Objects (NEO) > Probes to Asteroids and NEOs > Obama-Keck asteroid retrieval




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