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NASA visualizes asteroid capture plan

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August 24, 2013

Concept image showing Orion spacecraft approaching the robotic asteroid capture vehicle (I...

Concept image showing Orion spacecraft approaching the robotic asteroid capture vehicle (Image: NASA)

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NASA has released new concept images and animations outlining one version of its plan to capture an asteroid with an unmanned craft and return it to lunar orbit for astronauts to study. The plan is part of an initiative by President Barack Obama for a US manned asteroid mission as outlined in his 2014 NASA budget request. The agency’s main objective at the moment is to come up with alternative approaches and evaluate them.

The purpose of the initiative is to gather more information on asteroids for mining, as well as learning more about how to divert potentially dangerous ones. It also provides the US manned spaceflight program with a new goal now that the International Space Station is completed and the Space Shuttle retired. The current program is still very much in the concept stage, but NASA has already come up with some broad outlines of what a mission might look like. Generally, it would be based on a solar electric propulsion system, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion manned spacecraft, all currently under development

In the scenario presented by NASA, the SLS would lift a robotic asteroid redirect vehicle into orbit around the year 2025. This would then make a rendezvous with an asteroid using an ion propulsion drive (similar to that on the Dawn probe) powered by a solar array. Once on station, the vehicle would engulf the asteroid in a huge inflatable cylinder. Secured, the cylinder would collapse and cinch tight on the asteroid like a bag. The asteroid would then be despun and the ion drive used to redirect it to a stable, retrograde lunar orbit like a sort of interplanetary tug boat.

Concept image of an astronaut retrieving a sample from the captured asteroid (Image: NASA)

After the asteroid is in orbit, a Orion spacecraft with a crew of two would be launched, also using the SLS, and sent to the asteroid on a nine-day passage that would involve a slingshot maneuver around the Moon to place the craft in the correct intercept orbit.

At the asteroid, Orion would dock with the redirect vehicle and the astronauts would use a boom mechanism to go from Orion, past the redirect Vehicle and to the asteroid. The cocoon around the asteroid would have hundreds of metal rings, so the astronauts could secure themselves as they cut through the Kevlar-like fabric. They could then make observations and take samples for six days before returning to Earth after another ten-day passage and another lunar slingshot maneuver.

In July, a mission formulation review was undertaken to look at technical and logistical problems. NASA will host a workshop from September 30 to October 2 at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston to further discuss ideas.

The NASA animation below outlines a possible asteroid mission scenario.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
5 Comments

i didn't see anything relating to how they are going to redirect a large asteroid...just small ones. think huge mass being propelled by a weak engine...hmm, the asteroid would have to have been detected and it's path determined maybe ten years prior??

IMO we need a stronger propulsion unit and better detection.

we have UAV's on earth...think of several thousand space operating robotic vehicles detecting, tracking, analyzing mass, and even eventually retrieving asteroids. these space robots would have to be extremely light in mass so they could be transported cheaply or better, they would have to be manufactured off Earth.

notarichman
25th August, 2013 @ 06:29 am PDT

@notarichman

I believe we already have a number of suitable candidates in correct orbits to choose from. And we will have many more by the time the infrastructure to do this mission is in place.

Redirecting large asteroids is not the subject of this mission. This is about catching a manageable one for science, and parking it nearby for multiple missions such as experimenting with In-Situ Resource Utilization.

This capture will by done robotically. The manned mission will meet the robotic probe at the end of it's mission.

Stronger propulsion and better detection are all in the works, you can find plenty of recent example of both drawing board and operational concepts captured in the pages of Gizmag. Just today there was an article about reactivating the WISE Space Telescope to search for NEOs.

The Chelyabinsk event has underlined a need to find smaller objects than current search efforts are designed to undertake.

Bob Ehresman
26th August, 2013 @ 08:38 am PDT

Is it just me, or did NASA overlook the idea that the capture 'sheath' should be reusable? Why cut through a very expensive 'kevlar-like' material? I want to see big friggin' zippers, people!

Menes of Memphis
26th August, 2013 @ 09:57 am PDT

Or bring piece to dock to ISS & add modules to ISS alone?

Or Chinese space station??

Stephen N Russell
26th August, 2013 @ 05:00 pm PDT

NASA is a government agency thus they really don't understand economizing and reuse. They ended up with the space shuttle that required a virtually complete rebuild between flight for a vehicle that's concept was that it would fly like an airliner.

Slowburn
26th August, 2013 @ 05:08 pm PDT
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