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Asteroids in Orbit?

April 12, 2013

It looks like we’ll be bringing an asteroid home sometime soon.  NASA wants to identify an asteroid in deep space, figure out a way to capture it, and bring it into our own planetary region, ultimately setting it in orbit around our moon, all by the year 2025.  This proposal was included as a part of the NASA budget rollout for 2014, and an initial $104 million for the project is being provided by President Obama’s broader federal budget.  NASA’s plan for the asteroid is to first capture it, then surround it with a large, flexible covering that will be towed by a space craft with large solar arrays.

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NASA

Although the NASA project is similar to an idea proposed by scientists at the Keck Institute for Space Studies at CalTech, it will cost less than the projected Keck price tag of $2.6 billion, because NASA will look for their target asteroid much closer to earth, and because they will already be spending millions on related rocket technology.

Here’s a video from NASA describing the project.

Some of the goals articulated by the project are:  learning how to identify asteroids heading toward us and to change their course, finding destinations where astronauts can go as they try to learn how to make the longer trip to Mars, and providing opportunities for space investors.  Because asteroids are among the oldest objects in our solar system, bringing one into our neighborhood would give scientists an unprecedented opportunity to see what things were like at the formation of our solar system.  It will also help astronauts practice for the projected mission to Mars further in the future.  Another reason for the increased interest was the meteorite explosion above Chelyabinsk, Russia back in February, which has sparked conversation about “planetary defense”.  Finally, several commercial space companies have expressed interest in mining the asteroid and having a potential space mining site so close would spur those company’s development.

At the very least, we can finally dispel asteroid misconceptions passed on to us by films like this, and this.  Also, this.  Terrible, I know.

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6 Comments
  1. This was a really cool post. I had never heard, or even thought of, capturing an asteroid and towing it to earth. It does seem expensive though, and I am curious whether or not the benefits of this experiment outweigh the extreme costs. Either way, I think this could be a very interesting mission and I am interested to see if we are actually able to go through with it.

  2. This is a pretty interesting project. It’s quite impressive to see how ambitious our space projects have become in recent years, and this one is no exception. I feel like this could potentially be a waste of money, because I believe that our resources should be dedicated toward Extrasolar planet discovery at the moment. However, the premises of the project is fascinating, and it will be quite cool to see if we can indeed pull off this project at some point.

  3. ibrahim2016 permalink

    I like the idea. Maybe we could plant probes on asteroids in the asteroid belt. Then they could detect asteroids on a collision course with Earth and steer their “parent” asteroid to intercept before it got to close.

  4. This sounds like total science fiction! Once we can do this, we’ll be one step closer to being able to mine asteroids for rare Earth metals and solve a lot of problems here on Earth! This proof of concept will also be extremely useful in furthering our ability to prevent an asteroid from actually colliding with Earth, which is important! I think that this is the first step towards something huge, like the Moon landing, and the first step is always going to be very expensive, especially in astronomy.

  5. The idea of capturing an asteroid is pretty unconventional. Even though it would allow a much more detailed study of asteroids, it would take a lot of effort. I think what makes this project very interesting is that space exploration in the past has never really sought to alter the environment of space. Most projects are for observation, such as space probes sent to the edge of the solar system, to other planets, and rovers on Mars. Even astronauts sent to the Moon were doing experiments that did not change the Moon. However, pulling an asteroid into orbit is a dramatic change. It’ll be interesting to see whether it changes anything that we observe on Earth, like what we will see in the night sky.

  6. While this sounds like an incredible and amazing project, I have to wonder if we’re dogs chasing a car here. Once we have an asteroid, what do we DO with it? Mine it? Study it? Get a few more and build a collection? Arguments would naturally break out over the “ownership” of the asteroid, as I’m sure more than a few people would love to lay claim to it. Not to mention the actual logistics of capturing the asteroid, hauling it back, and setting it in a stable orbit. Nonetheless if they can actually do it, I say go for it and more power to them.

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