Proposed Asteroid Capture Mission Brings NASA Administrator to JPL

The mission would divert a truck-sized asteroid into orbit around the moon

By Patrick Healy
|  Thursday, May 23, 2013  |  Updated 8:47 PM PDT
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Scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working on building an asteroid catcher that will guide an asteroid to the moon's orbit. However, the technological challenges may be less daunting than the challenge of securing funding. Patrick Healy reports from JPL for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 23, 2013.

Patrick Healy, Sergio Lelevier

Scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working on building an asteroid catcher that will guide an asteroid to the moon's orbit. However, the technological challenges may be less daunting than the challenge of securing funding. Patrick Healy reports from JPL for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 23, 2013.

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For the administrator of NASA, directing and overseeing America's space program is only part of the job. It also requires vision and salesmanship to launch new programs, and persuade Congress to appropriate the funding in tight budget times.

So it is that Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and retired Marine Corps Major General known for his quick wit, is stumping in California, visiting NASA facilities, meeting with scientists, and making his case to the media and the American people.

Inspecting a spaceship newly arrived for testing at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Bolden explained on Wednesday the rationale in the post-space shuttle era for commercializing crew transport to low earth orbit and the International Space Station.

At SoCal’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Thursday, checking ion thruster development, Bolden spoke for a mission to capture an asteroid and redirect it for a rendezvous with astronauts.

And on Friday, Bolden will head to the Ames Research Center in the Bay Area to spotlight 3D printing and PhoneSat miniature satellites.

Putting a man on the moon nearly half a century ago was a tough act to follow, but no NASA program has been able to capture the nation's interest and enthusiasm as did the Apollo lunar landings.

Bolden sees the next big thing as manned exploration of our neighboring planet Mars, and he has boosters in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“I’m delighted to hear the NASA administrator speak about Mars as the ultimate destination, at least in the next 20 years, for human exploration,” Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said at Tuesday's hearing of the House Science Committee.

A tougher sell is convincing members of the House Science Committee that other programs advocated by Bolden, including an asteroid capture, contribute sufficiently to the Mars goal.
Aviation Week quoted Space Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) as saying it might instead be a “detour.”

Bolden is quick to disagree.

"We're using this asteroid as a driver for filling the technological gaps we need to put humans on Mars," Bolden said at JPL.

As now envisioned, an unmanned spacecraft would be sent on a journey that would cover millions of miles and take as long as five years to reach a small asteroid, then apply thrust to nudge it far enough off course that when it approached earth, it would fall into orbit around the moon.

There it would be met by astronauts arriving on another spaceship. The astronauts would take samples from the asteroid. Afterwards, because the asteroid has a negligible gravity field, departing would be much simpler and take minimal energy compared to leaving the moon.

Until recent years, returning to the moon had been seen as an essential steppingstone to another planet. Bolden argues the asteroid catcher mission could provide the benefits, at a lesser cost.

Using ion thruster for propulsion would also advance the state of a developing technology.
Xenon ion thrusters cannot match the power of chemical-fueled rockets, and in fact, produce much less power than most cars, but offers advantages for transport of space cargo over long distances and extended time periods of months or even years, according to Brian Muirhead, JPL chief engineer.

The asteroid initiative also addresses an issue brought back to America's consciousness in February by the booming explosion of a meteor over the Ural Mountains in Russia, an event witnessed not only by residents of the city of Chelyabinsk, but also by the millions who saw the videos posted online and broadcast on television.

Some so-called Near Earth Objects do collide with our planet. A large one 65 million years ago is blamed for the demise of the dinosaurs. A giant asteroid threatening the modern world has become a sci-fi staple.

In 1998, NASA set up the Near Earth Object Program to detect, locate, and track asteroids, meteoroids and comets big enough to pose a threat if they approached earth. The program has located 95 percent of objects more than a kilometer (0.62 mile) across and determined none is on a collision course with earth for at last a hundred years, according to Don Yeomans, Near-Earth Object Program Office Manager.

"The other 5 percent we can't rule out as a threat," Yeomans acknowledged, then quickly added, "but it's extremely unlikely."

Still, NASA is asked if there is a way to disarm such a threat if it emerged. Bolden acknowledges the capability to do so for real is at best decades a way. But he says the initiative to capture and redirect a small asteroid represents a first step.

"I would like to see that we've developed the capability to deflect some size asteroid in my lifetime," Bolden said.

Another uphill challenge for Bolden has been convincing Congress to fully fund the Commercial Crew Program. NASA has already awarded a total of more than one billion dollars to help cover the development costs of three companies: Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which built the Dream Chaser Bolden saw Tuesday at the Dryden Center.

Since the retirement of the last space shuttle, America has had no spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the space station, and has had to book passage on Russian Soyuz missions.

"We have got to get Commercial Crew funded, or we're going to be paying the Russians forever," Bolden remarked Tuesday at NASA Dryden.

For deep space exploration, including Mars, NASA is developing a new Space Launch System, SLS for short, and a new Orion capsule.

Some in Congress have suggested the Commercial Crew Program is not needed because SLS and Orion could fulfill those duties. Bolden acknowledged he would do that in an emergency situation, but said using purpose-designed Commercial Crew craft would be more efficient.

Everyone, it seems, wants to go to Mars.

It's the way there, and the other steps along the way, that are testing Bolden's vision and powers of persuasion.

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