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I'm trying to think through what the cost would be of an unmanned mission to a nearby asteroid. To me it seems like the high-level costs would be the fixed cost of the "spaceship" itself (including any scientific or mining equipment required to carry out the mission), the cost of getting into orbit which would depend on the ship mass, and the fuel to get there and return (which would be a function of fuel cost, ship mass, how fast you want to get there, and the mass of anything collected at the asteroid site that would be returned). Is there anywhere that this is discussed or has anyone thought this through further?
This is something that has already been done, so we already have a point of reference. Hayabusa landed on the asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005. The mission was considered a success and a sample was returned to Earth. According to sources from the time, the total mission cost was around 170 million dollars and other sources put the development cost of the spacecraft at around 138 million dollars. There is also a planned Hayabusa 2.
NASA chief: Visiting an asteroid is all agency can afford
A NASA plan to send astronauts to an asteroid was met with skepticism Wednesday when NASA Chief Charlie Bolden presented the idea to top space officials in Congress - though their doubts may not be enough to sink the program.
The asteroid mission, unveiled a few weeks ago, would send a NASA probe to capture a small asteroid and drag it to a point near the moon so astronauts riding a new rocket and capsule could visit it, possibly as soon as 2021.
"The goal is (to) remain the world's leader in exploration," Bolden said. But members of the U.S. House science committee took issue with the project's cost and feasibility - and questioned why the agency wasn't planning a return to the moon en route to an eventual mission to Mars.
The NASA chief delivered a blunt reply: It's all NASA can afford.
"I need money to go to the moon," Bolden said.
As part of its 2014 budget proposal, the White House wants NASA to spend $105 million next year to begin planning the asteroid mission, which could cost upward of $2.6 billion.
Broadly, the administration envisions sending a probe as soon as 2017 to capture a 25-foot, 500-ton asteroid and tug it near the moon - possibly to a spot about 277,000 miles from Earth that would use competing gravitational forces to allow it to "sit" there.
Astronauts flying NASA's new Orion capsule and Space Launch System rocket then would visit it to take samples and possibly set foot on its surface.
In addition to scientific benefits, Bolden said an asteroid trip would serve as a steppingstone for an eventual Mars mission while also teaching NASA engineers how to divert an asteroid in case one ever threatened Earth. He called it "an unprecedented technological challenge."
Lawmakers, however, wanted to know whether NASA would learn more - and do more - by going back to the moon instead.
"Would (a moon mission) be a better precursor to a Mars mission?" asked U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the science committee.
Bolden replied that "both are good" but that an asteroid mission was the only program affordable under his proposed 2014 budget of $17.7 billion.
"Going to the moon is a factor of three (times) more expensive," Bolden said.
NASA is spending about $3 billion annually to develop the Orion capsule and SLS rocket, and construction of moon landers and other lunar equipment would add billions of dollars to that.
Not every member of the committee, however, was critical. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said an asteroid mission was a "good direction to go."
And as yet, there's no major opposition in the U.S. Senate, which could help clear the way for the idea to become reality.
At a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., reiterated support for the White House proposal, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas - a fiery freshman who rarely misses a chance to criticize the administration - held his fire.
The lack of resistance is tied to Senate support of the Space Launch System. Senators from key NASA states - Florida, Texas and Alabama - pushed President Barack Obama to build it, and the asteroid mission is seen as a way to give purpose to the rocket, once criticized as a "rocket to nowhere."
Illustrative of that point was the initial reaction of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
"NASA should continue to explore the universe and challenge scientific and technical boundaries," he said in a statement. "However, NASA should maintain focus on its core mission and continue development of the Space Launch System so that it will be ready for any future NASA mission."
(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Official Confirms NASA Plan to Capture an Asteroid
Rumors have been leaking out for over a week, but now according to Alan Boyle at NBC News’ Cosmic Log, a senior Obama administration official has confirmed that $100 million is being sought for NASA’s budget request for the coming fiscal year for work to allow a robotic spaceship to capture a small asteroid and park it near the Moon for astronauts to explore. The spacecraft would capture a 500-ton, 7- meter (25-foot) asteroid in 2019. Then using an Orion space capsule, a crew of about four astronauts would station-keep with the space rock in 2021 to allow for EVAs for exploration. This plan would accelerate NASA’s deep space missions with Orion and prepare crews for going to Mars.
NBC news quoted the official — who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the plan publicly — as saying the mission would “accomplish the president’s challenge of sending humans to visit an asteroid by 2025 in a more cost-effective and potentially quicker time frame than under other scenarios.”
A week ago, Aviation Week reported that NASA was considering this asteroid mission, which was proposed by the Keck Institute for Space Studies last year. Keck’s proposal had a price tag of $2.6 billion, but no cost estimate for the space agency’s version has yet been released.
Then on April 5, the Associated Press quoted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, Nelson, chairman of the Senate science and space subcommittee, that President Obama is putting $100 million in planning money for the accelerated asteroid mission in the 2014 budget that comes out next week. The money would be used to find the right small asteroid.
“It really is a clever concept,” AP quoted Nelson said in a press conference in Orlando. “Go find your ideal candidate for an asteroid. Go get it robotically and bring it back.”
This would be the first time ever an object in space of this size would be manipulated in such a manner.
Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA’s Near Earth Object program, was quoted that while there are thousands of asteroids around 25-feet, finding the right one that comes by Earth at just the right time to be captured will not be easy. And once a suitable rock is found it would be captured with the space equivalent of “a baggie with a drawstring. You bag it. You attach the solar propulsion module to de-spin it and bring it back to where you want it.”
A 7- meter (25-foot) asteroid is not a threat to Earth because asteroids of that size would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
The official quoted by NBC said the plan has been under discussion for months, but after February’s meteor blast over Russia, the plan gained traction. The asteroid’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and subsequent airblast injured more than 1,000 people, and sparked discussions about asteroid threats, including a series of congressional hearings. Congressional officials said they would support more funding to counter asteroid threats.
“This plan would help us prove we’re smarter than the dinosaurs,” NBC quoted said the official, referring to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species 65 million years ago.
Analyzing the Economics of Asteroid Mining
One often-discussed feature of the New Space Age is Asteroid Mining. Articles tend to crop up every couple of months talking about how asteroids contain trillions of dollars of wealth, enough to give everyone on earth $100 billion (yes, that's from a real article)! According to Wikipedia, Ryugu (a near-earth asteroid) has $95 billion of minerals on it, and anyone who mined it would make a profit of $35 billion! So done! Problem solved, asteroid mining is feasible! Please remember to like, share, and.
OK, so this is obviously stupid (the price of minerals is only what someone would pay for them, and a sudden market glut would crash prices to almost nothing), but there is enough money and (supposedly) smart people looking into it that it bears a closer examination to see if it actually is (or will ever be) feasible.
Like with my last post about Space Based Solar Power, this is a brief overview from an amateur's perspective. I'm sure that some people have written dissertations on this, and I would greatly appreciate your input on any errors I've made.
To start with, let's not even bother looking at the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy when it comes to asteroid mining, and instead look at a "best case scenario" for space-mining advocates. This way, if it doesn't work even in this scenario, then it's safe to say that it won't in the foreseeable future.
Using the currently published BFS stats: 375 s, 85,000 kg empty mass, 1,100,000 kg of fuel. I suppose that, with a specialized ship, you could have a better dry-mass to fuel ratio, but that's out of scope, and won't really change all that much.
It takes 6 BFR launches to put a fully fueled BFS in orbit, going for $7 million/launch. I'll be generous, and pretend that the BFS making the trip to the asteroid doesn't lose value along the way (hint: it does).
I don't know exactly how much delta-v SpaceX can save by using aerobreaking to slow themselves down on their way back to earth, or how much delta-v is needed to land a BFS. I'll take a wild guess and say the two cancel out, but please correct me if that isn't the case.
We'll pretend that all the infrastructure needed to mine the minerals is already in place, so we're just talking about a ship stopping by to pick up what was mined (before you point out that this is stupid in the comments, recall that I'm trying to make this a "best case scenario" with a mature operation).
We are first visiting the asteroid Ryugu to mine Cobalt. It's one of the "closest" minable objects, and Cobalt has the advantage of being a valuable but practical element, with a large enough demand that even large-scale space mining wouldn't dent the price too much.
To plug in the Rocket Equation for a fully-fueled BFS in orbit, let's see how much fuel we must expend to get the BFS to the asteroid to pick up it's cargo:
Delta-v to Ryguyu = Raptor Engine ISP * ln( (start fuel mass + empty mass)/ (start fuel mass - fuel used + empty mass) )
OR: 4666 = 375*9.81*ln((1100+85)/(1100-fuel used + 85))
So just getting the BFS to the closest near earth object takes up 851,000 kg of fuel! This is before we've loaded any minerals on board. To calculate how much payload we can bring back do earth, it's the same equation except:
Delta-v to Earth = Raptor Engine ISP * ln( (start fuel mass + payload + empty mass)/ (payload + empty mass) )
OR: 4666 = 375*9.81*ln((1100-852+p+85)/(p + 85))
payload = 28.893 metric tons
So that sucks! We go all that way, launch 6 rockets, spend probably years in outer space, and all we get are 29 metric tons of cobalt. At current prices, that's worth
$899,000. Compare that to the "best case" cost of 6 BFR launches or $42 million.
It's commonly agreed that some sort of ISRU (creating fuel out of the asteroid itself) will be required for space mining. The asteroid Ryugu probably has water, and while I don't think it has carbon, amateur scientists like us need not be constrained by such petty laws of chemistry! Let's assume that, once the ship arrives, it is fully refueled at zero cost. Now our return-payload looks like:
Delta-v to Earth = Raptor Engine ISP * ln( (start fuel mass + payload + empty mass)/ (payload + empty mass) )
OR: 4666 = 375*9.81*ln((1100+p+85)/(p+ 85))
payload = 345.5 metric tons
The good news is we've increased our revenues by an order of magnitude (
$ 10,710,500)! The bad news is we are now at just over 25% of our fixed, "best case" costs. (I'm actually not sure if the BFS could land with that much payload, but at this point it doesn't really matter does it?)
These numbers can be made to work for elements like Helium 3 and Platinum, due to their super-high cost-per-kg (345.5 metric tons of Platinum is technically worth over $10 billion). However, the world's yearly supply of platinum is roughly just 243 metric tons, and increasing this significantly would serve to quickly crater the price.
All this is to say that no, asteroid mining is not, and may never be, feasible. Even as the cost of launching to LEO drops, people often forget that going between an asteroid and LEO is almost as costly! I'm sure there are marginal ways of improving the above calculations: using ion drives, having a specialized cargo tug, hard-landing the minerals instead of repulsively-landing them, and more could all be used to shift the values closer to the "profitable" column.
However, as I mentioned above, this post ignores the cost of R&D, setting up the mining base itself, and losing a perfectly good BFS for several years.
Some people argue that space mining will be useful, because it will give us resources to use while in space. However, there are three problems with that. Firstly, space mining has been held up as a reason to go to space. The reason for mining cannot then just be "help us do things in space". Secondly, for space mining to become practical the costs of orbital launch must be brought so low that it is no longer worthwhile to mine resources in space! Just launch another BFR! Finally, while people colonizing other planets will, by necessity, need to mine them, the cost of sending minerals from an asteroid to Mars is very similar to the cost of sending minerals from Earth to Mars! So unless you are colonizing that particular asteroid there isn't much point.
Thanks for reading! If I made any mistakes or failed to consider anything, Iɽ love to hear your thoughts! Ultimately I'm curious what companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are thinking, and what their own equations look like.
keith707aero and a few others in the comments pointed out that you may not need to burn all that fuel to move the minerals back to earth. Instead, building a railgun on the asteroid itself could let you fire minerals back using only electricity. Sure, over time it would change the asteroid's orbit, but you could reverse this by firing equal masses of iron in the opposite direction. This is an intriguing concept, and could change the above math. However, there are some issues that came to mind:
Accurately hitting the earth with the projectile would likely be very difficult. You would almost certainly need some kind of maneuvering thrusters to guide you towards your desired landing location, which would then need to also be manufactured on the asteroid, creating WAY more complexity. If you want full accuracy then you would need to enter Earth's orbit, but that would require even more large/complex engines, and we're back to where we started.
You would by necessity be hard-landing on the earth, and the projectiles would be going EXTREMELY fast. I guess if you fired from the right place you could have the speed of the projectile sync up with the speed of the earth, so it wouldn't be as fast, but I can still see the potential for nuclear-scale devastation if you hit the wrong place.
Still, this is a cool idea that I hadn't thought of, and it may be worth further consideration.
Need riches to get rich
Asteroid companies have one major cash-flow issue: if there are riches in space, the miners are reliant on faithful funders to get them there in the first place. That’s why Graps believes communication is key. “Everyone is struggling in their own way,” she says. “So it helps if we can talk to each other. And share. And use our own resources more efficiently.”
Before any company reaches an asteroid, they’ll have to fill that gap in their finances with other revenue streams. The business model for asteroid-mining companies is therefore currently much more Earth-bound. Planetary Resources, for example, which uses its expertise for mining here on Earth, is still reliant on wealthy bankers. Indeed, after missing a funding milestone last year, the company laid off many of its 70 employees. Asteroid-mining companies need to convince potential funders that the claims of untold riches in space are believable and achievable.
But rather than just targeting wealthy investors, Mitch Hunter-Scullion, chief executive of the UK-based Asteroid Mining Corporation, has taken a different tack. He’s turned to crowdfunding for his first asteroid-prospecting mission, which he hopes to fire into space in 2020. “We’re launching APS-1 [Asteroid Prospecting Satellite 1] from India, because it is orders of magnitude cheaper than elsewhere,” he says. “We’re aiming to raise £2.6m through crowdfunding, which, in space terms, is not too overwhelming.” That may be true, but £2.6m will still require a lot of backing from the public for what, to many people, seems like a distant dream. If they do manage to raise the funds, he then plans to sell the data they own to raise more revenue.
A boost for public interest might not be too far away. Although NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission has been cancelled, its OSIRIS-Rex sample-return mission to asteroid 101955 Bennu left Earth in September 2016, before Trump took office. It will reach Bennu in December this year and then return a sample to Earth in 2023. Asteroid miners will be watching closely, just as they did when Rosetta landed on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko…and then bounced along its surface.
“We knew a lot about the composition of the comet but that was still a surprise,” Graps tells me. “We need more science before we land on an asteroid to mine it. You don’t want to be bouncing off.”
Graps believes that the asteroid-mining community was distracted by the wrong thing to begin with. “I think [they] wasted time focusing on the metal-rich asteroids,” she says. Her view is shared by Planetary Resources, which puts the platinum-rich asteroids in its second wave of targets. They believe you’re better off targeting chondrites as they have water, which will be your revenue stream in the near future. You mine the water, you own the rocket fuel stations in low-Earth orbit, on the Moon and on the way to deep space. Whether it will make anyone a trillionaire is another question, however. You can use the heat of the Sun to bake the water out of the asteroid but you then need to stop it sublimating off into space. None of this is particularly cheap and you need the spacecraft to come along relatively frequently to keep your revenue streams buoyant. As Elvis says, “In space, no-one can hear you sell.”
Why Apophis is the most dangerous asteroid
Observing Apophis, the "god of chaos," is a vitally important action for the Earth, as the asteroid belongs to the subgroup of those that pass dangerously close to the planet, known as Aton asteroids.
In addition, many of them are categorized as potentially hazardous and, specifically, Apophis has a diameter of 340 meters, which poses a greater risk.
Since its discovery in 2004 by Dave Tholen and astronomers at the University of Hawaii, thanks to the Subaru telescope on Maunakea, Apophis has been closely followed, including these recent changes due to the Yarkovsky effect.
Unfortunately, astronomers used the Arecibo telescope (Puerto Rico) to observe objects like these, although it was dismantled in 2020, after several technical failures in its structure.
For this reason, Unistellar asked for help from the public and, in particular, from amateur astronomers, so that no details would be missed by the official Apophis researchers.
On the other hand, although the asteroid could be observed last February 21 across the United States, help from the public is still welcome, as the risk of Apophis impact remains active for the next few years.
Only the collaboration of all the people will be able to really defend the terrestrial citizens, who have their first enemy in this asteroid, the most dangerous that has ever grazed the Earth.
Late last year when I met with Schweickart and another astronaut, Ed Lu, they were both hungry for dinner. They had come to Houston to speak that evening about the asteroid threat to a gathering of alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of which Schweickart was an alum. They also planned to visit the Johnson Space Center the next morning for an annual physical, part of a longitudinal study of astronauts.
They had to fast before the physical, and this was their last chance. “Do you mind if we eat while we talk?” Lu asked, before diving into a chicken Caesar salad.
Lu and Schweickart were among the founders of the B612 Foundation more than 14 years ago. The simple goal was to protect Earth from asteroid impacts. No one had previously taken ownership of the problem, Lu said. It wasn’t NASA’s responsibility to stave off danger, so NASA hadn’t focused its efforts on asteroids before.
Initially the group’s advocacy had some effect—in 2005 Congress passed a law requiring NASA, by the year 2020, to identify 90 percent of asteroids that were 140 meters or larger that potentially threaten Earth. But the Bush administration never asked for funding to carry out this mandate, so NASA never got it. At the time, the agency’s administrator, Michael Griffin, was instead scraping together every spare dollar he could find in NASA’s budget to pay for rockets and spacecraft that were part of the Constellation Program. That program was canceled in 2010 after more than $9 billion had been spent. Meanwhile, NASA has only found about 10 percent of the asteroids it was supposed to.
Frustrated by this, in 2012 the B612 Foundation announced plans to build its own space telescope, Sentinel, to search for asteroids that might threaten Earth. It would cost about $450 million. But fundraising efforts lagged. It turns out that’s a lot of money to raise for an existential threat. Late in 2015, NASA pulled the plug on a “Space Act Agreement” with the foundation that would have allowed the space telescope to use the agency’s deep space network to communicate with Earth. NASA said the foundation had failed to meet key milestones.
I met with Lu and Schweickart shortly after this NASA decision, expecting them to be pretty glum about the loss of NASA support for Sentinel. But that wasn’t the case. They seemed more or less pleased with progress that has been made in the field. While Sentinel may be stuck in neutral, other efforts have moved forward and seem likely to bear fruit in the coming decade.
Everybody in the lab gettin’ TIPSI: NAU astronomy students build camera to track asteroids – NAU News : NAU News
Astronomer David Trilling has a pragmatic perspective on the importance of his research.
“If an asteroid’s going to hit the Earth, you want to know how big it is,” he said.
The Northern Arizona University professor of physics and astronomy measures asteroids that get close to Earth—close being roughly the moon’s distance away, more or less a few hundred thousand miles. However, one can’t simply look at the space rock and estimating its size, though. To effectively measure the size of an asteroid, an astronomer uses an infrared camera to measure the amount of heat it emits: the bigger the asteroid, the more heat it gives off.
Usually that technology is not cheap. It’s a large box filled with liquid nitrogen or helium that weighs so much scientists must invest in larger, heavier telescopes to accommodate the camera. The result has been fewer scientists using the technology at all.
To combat that, Trilling decided to get TIPSI.
After conversing with colleagues, he recruited seven NAU students to build the Thermal Infrared Planetary Science Imager (TIPSI), an infrared camera that weighs 70 grams, operates at room temperature and can be connected to a regular computer through a USB drive. It cost about $15,000 to make and regular maintenance is limited to needing a power source and access to the Internet. At this price point, this infrared camera is 20-50 times cheaper than the old type of infrared camera.
The project, which was unveiled at the Barry Lutz Telescope at NAU on May 2, started with a hallway conversation between astronomy professor Christopher Edwards and Michael Mommert, a physics and astronomy research associate. Although they advised the process, the students built the system, which included creating the computer program to collect and store data, finding a way to mount the camera on a telescope and figuring out how to get power and Internet to the camera.
The students are Bradley Moldermaker, Dan Avner, Daniel Krollman, Nathan Smith, Cheyenne Clutter, Corrie Vanlaanen and Zowie Haugaard. They came from physics and astronomy, computer science and mechanical engineering and include two graduate students and five undergraduates.
Smith, a master’s student in applied physics, brought a critical expertise to the project—familiarity with the telescope and knowing what astronomers needed from an instrument like TIPSI. He helped with the design of the mounting hardware, helped debug the camera control software, developed and tested different ways to analyze the data and has been the guinea pig at the telescope making observations.
Members of the team who built TIPSI celebrate at the unveiling of the infrared camera at the Barry Lutz Telescope on May 2, 2017.
“The team has such a diverse mix of engineering and computer science backgrounds, but many of the others didn’t know much about astronomy or telescopes when we started,” Smith said. “Since I have some experience with the campus telescope already, I tried to bring a user’s perspective to the design and functionality of the instrument.”
“I don’t have any background in engineering or design, so I learned a lot just seeing the process of turning an idea into a physical end product,” he said. “Especially with an instrument like this, there are a lot of considerations you might initially overlook. What I learned about instrument design will not only be useful to me if I go on to build more instruments later, but it will also make me a more informed user when I encounter new instruments in the future.”
In addition to the real-world project management experience the students gained, the creation of TIPSI provides two significant benefits, Trilling said. One is this disruptive technology will allow more people to track and measure the size of asteroids that fly near the Earth, of which about five are discovered every night. It allows astronomers to learn more about the behaviors of these rocks in case astronomers discover a big one headed for Earth.
“We want to understand the properties of asteroids so if we have to deflect or destroy an asteroid coming at us, we have some idea what it’s made out of,” Trilling said. “It turns out one of the most important things we want to know about asteroids flying by the Earth is how big it is.”
The other is this technology can now be accessible. The uniqueness of TIPSI isn’t what it does, it’s that it does it at a fraction of the cost of its fancier counterpart, making these kinds of measurements accessible to professional and student-level observatories for the first time.
The team plans to submit a paper for publication this summer that will include a shopping list and instructions for astronomers to make their own TIPSI telescopes.
TIPSI was made possible through the donations of NAU alumni Robert Mueller (1980 BS geology) and Jim Skelding (1993 BS physics).
US space chief updates on asteroid lasso mission (Update)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, left to right, Firouz Naderi, Director for the Solar System Exploration, and John Brophy, Electric Propulsion Engineer, are shown during Bolden's visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, May 23, 2013. NASA engineers are developing an ion engine for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Surrounded by engineers, NASA chief Charles Bolden inspected a prototype spacecraft engine that could power an audacious mission to lasso an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth for astronauts to explore.
Bolden checked on the progress Thursday a month after the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget that proposes $105 million to jumpstart the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion.
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Glenn Research Center in Ohio are developing a thruster that relies on ion propulsion instead of conventional chemical fuel.
Once relegated to science fiction, ion propulsion—which fires beams of electrically charged atoms to propel a spacecraft—is preferred for deep space cruising because it's more fuel-efficient. Engine testing is expected to ramp up next year.NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Bolden inspected a prototype spacecraft engine that could power an audacious mission to lasso an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth for astronauts to explore. Bolden's visit comes a month after the Obama administration unveiled its 2014 budget that proposes $105 million to jumpstart the mission, which may eventually cost more than $2.6 billion. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
During Thursday's visit to the JPL campus, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, Bolden viewed an engineering model of the engine and peered through a porthole of a vacuum chamber housing the prototype.
NASA is under White House orders to fly humans to an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars. Instead of sending astronauts all the way to an asteroid, as originally planned, the space agency came up with a quicker, cheaper idea: Haul the asteroid close to the moon and visit it there.
The space agency would launch an ion-powered unmanned spacecraft to snare a yet-to-be-selected small asteroid in 2019 and park it in the moon's neighborhood. Then a spacewalking team would hop on an Orion space capsule that's currently under development and explore the rock in 2021.
Besides preparing astronauts for an eventual trip to Mars, NASA said the asteroid-capture mission is designed to test technologies to deflect threatening space boulders on a collision course with Earth.NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, right, talks with electric propulsion engineer John Brophy during a visit to Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2013. They are standing next to an ion engine, which NASA engineers plan to use for an asteroid capture mission later this decade. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Scientists have said the redirected asteroid would pose no threat to Earth. If it inadvertently plunged through the atmosphere, it would burn up, they said.
Bolden's JPL stop is part of his annual spring tour of NASA centers around the country. His California journey began Wednesday at the Dryden Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert where Sierra Nevada Corp. is preparing its Dream Chaser spaceship for test flights later this year before it can make supply runs to the International Space Station. On Friday, Bolden was set to visit the Ames Research Center in the Silicon Valley where engineers are working on various space technologies.
Questions about NASA's asteroid mission
NASA's Asteroid redirect mission is getting closer to having the ability to identify, capture, relocate an asteroid, and send astronauts to take samples of it in the 2020s.
WASHINGTON — NASA plans to redirect a small asteroid into lunar orbit during the next decade as part of a steppingstone approach to landing astronauts on Mars by the 2030s.
Some key leaders in Congress, which must approve funding for the mission, prefer returning to the moon. That plan was scrapped a few years ago by President Obama, who canceled the Constellation Program due to what an independent commission called unsustainable costs.
Here's a look at relevant questions and answers about NASA's asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.
Q: How exactly would the mission work?
A: NASA is exploring two options. The first would identify a small asteroid (about 7 to 10 meters) not far from Earth, use a robotic spacecraft to retrieve it, then drop it into the moon's orbit. An alternative plan would extract a boulder from a larger asteroid and do the same thing.
Once the asteroid is in lunar orbit, a crew of two astronauts would use a deep-space rocket and the Orion crew vehicle NASA is developing to visit the floating rock and dock to the robotic spacecraft still attached to it.
Q: How will NASA find a suitable asteroid?
A: The agency already has identified more than 11,000 asteroids, or "near Earth objects." Three of them, none bigger than a school bus, are being monitored for the mission.
They are believed to have the mass, shape, spin rate and orbit that could prove viable targets for a mission. Three larger ones have been identified as possible candidates for the boulder alternative.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: Estimates range from $1.25 billion to $2.6 billion, not including the cost of developing the deep space rocket and Orion capsule. That would be considerably cheaper than using the moon as a steppingstone to Mars, which would require more infrastructure, notably a lunar lander.
Lack of money has forced NASA to reassess its missions. Unless a more ambitious plan gets broad international buy-in — or Congress decides to approve significantly more money for NASA — an asteroid mission looks like the agency's best option for a deep-space mission for now, said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"It's the most interesting mission to undertake, given the current ground rules and current budget," he said.
Q: Are there other advantages of visiting an asteroid?
A: Yes. The most relevant is the opportunity to study the floating space rocks. More information about their composition and how they hurtle through space should help scientists determine how to deflect those that are on a collision course with Earth.
There's also interest in mining asteroids for metals, rare minerals and frozen water, which could be converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel that would make a trip to Mars easier and cheaper.
Q: Why is there interest in returning to the moon?
A: The idea leaves some people with a been-there-done-that feeling. But supporters of the proposal say returning to the moon would provide a gateway to the rest of the solar system and enable scientific discoveries valuable to an eventual Mars mission.
It also would give an emerging commercial space industry opportunities to test new technologies and mine for minerals. And it would give the U.S. a chance to partner (read: share costs) with other countries it's been at odds with lately, such as China and Russia.
"There's really no enthusiasm among any of our (international) partners for the ARM," said Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political science professor.
Q: What does Congress have to say about this?
A: Lawmakers are split on the asteroid plan. Republican leaders have criticized it as uninspiring and a waste of money, and say it lacks broad support from the scientific community.
Part of that reaction stems from bruised feelings over Obama's decision to abolish the return-to-the-moon Constellation Program — which had been championed by President George W. Bush — without consulting Congress.
Democrats are more supportive, though they're not particularly keen on the asteroid idea either.
A: NASA scientist will continue looking for the best asteroid to use for the mission. The agency also is planning a December test launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida of an unmanned Orion vehicle atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV heavy rocket.
Congress, meanwhile, is working on NASA's budget request, which includes about $133 million for the asteroid mission. Space committees in the House and Senate have passed similar spending plans for NASA but have yet to work out a compromise on a final budget.